Friday, October 15, 2021

Vivaldi con amore

Vivaldi is still one of the most frequently performed and recorded composers of the baroque era, alongside Bach and Handel, with some stiff competion from Telemann. Recently several discs with Vivaldi's music have been released. The effect of the composer's popularity it is inevitable that we often get pieces that are already available in several recordings. However, at least one of them comprises concertos that are new to the catalogue, ot at least new in the form in which they are performed.

There is nothing new about the first disc to be reviewed here. Vivaldi's oeuvre includes a little over fifty concertos and sinfonias for strings and basso continuo without any solo parts. There is no fundamental difference between the concerto - in some manuscripts called concerto ripieno - and the sinfonia. The main difference is the treatment of counterpoint. This is more elaborated in the concertos, whereas the sinfonias are generally more homophonic. Here the melody has greater importance and the two violins often play in unison. There is also a difference in keys: the sinfonias are all in major keys, whereas seventeen of the forty concertos are in the minor. These pieces have all been recorded by the ensemble L'Archicembalo, but not everyone is interested in such a comprehensive production. Enrico Onofri recorded a nice selection with the Academia Montis Regalis [1]; it is his first recording with this ensemble as its new conductor. The selection reflects the variety in this section of Vivaldi's oeuvre. Strings and basso continuo is the basic scoring, but in the Concerto alla rustica RV 151 Vivaldi added parts for two oboes. The Concerto RV 155 is a hybrid piece: the first two movements are of the concerto ripieno type, whereas the last two movements include a solo part for the violin. Another kind of hybrid concerto is RV 159, whose last movement has the traces of a concerto grosso. Most sinfonias and concertos comprise three movements, but there are exceptions. One is the above-mentioned RV 155, another the Concerto madrigalesco RV 129, which also has four movements. And then there is the Sinfonia al Santo Sepolcro RV 169, which has two movements, and is also scored for strings without the participation of any keyboard instrument. The Concerto RV 114 is notable for its opening movement in dotted rhythm, à la française, and its closing chiacona. As one will have noticed, there is a lot of variety in this programme, which is given an excellent interpretation by the Academia Montis Regalis, with fine solo contributions by Onofri himself. In some cases I could imagine a faster tempo and more marked dynamic contrasts, but I appreciate that Onofri does not try to contribute to a contest in speed and exuberance.

In addition to more than 250 solo concertos for the violin, Vivaldi wrote many concertos for other instruments, from the lute to the bassoon. As they were often written for professional players or the highly-skilled girls of the Ospedale della Pietà, many of them are no less virtuosic than those for the violin. Vivaldi also wrote concertos for two and more instruments, often in less than conventional combinations, such as two oboes and two violins. Under the title "Vivaldi con amore", the Canadian Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra [2] released a disc with specimens of the various kinds of concertos that Vivaldi's oeuvre has to offer: two concertos for solo violin and one for four violins, concertos for bassoon and for lute respectively, and two concertos for two oboes, one of them with two solo violins, preceded by the overture to the opera Ottone in villa, which also includes a solo part for the violin. This disc shows that for engaging performances one does not need Italian ensembles. The time has gone that ensembles from the Anglo-Saxon world came up with neat and clear performances, largely devoid of drama and ignoring the fundamentally theatrical nature of Vivaldi's instrumental music, although now and then such performances may still be heard. This disc definitely shows that much has changed. The ensemble, directed by the Italian-born Elisa Citterio, delivers excellent performances. Citterio herself leads the way in her interpretation of the Concerto RV 761, whose last movement is especially nice. Dominic Teresi is responsible for an exciting performance of the Concerto RV 481 for bassoon; the middle movement is particularly theatrical. The disc closes with a compelling performance of the Concerto RV 564a for two oboes and two violins, with excellent solo contributions by John Abberger, Marco Cera, Elisa Citterio and Julia Wedman. This is a very fine disc with a mixture of more or less familiar pieces and lesser-known items.

The next disc, with the ensemble Musica Antiqua Latina [3], is simply called "Vivaldi", and includes concertos and sinfonias. Nothing special, at first sight. However, the booklet includes two essays whose authors, Giovanni De Zorzi and Giordano Antonelli respectively, argue that Venice was an amalgam of different cultures, among them those of the Orient, and that this must have had an effect on the music written there. That sounds plausible, but unfortunately they fail to point out exactly in what way one can notice oriental influences in Vivaldi's music. The disc ends with the Sinfonia in b minor (RV 168), and the last movement opens with an improvisation on the Greek lyra by Antonelli (what kind of instrument he plays is not specified), which then leads to the music that Vivaldi has written. I can't take this seriously; this is a gimmick to demonstrate an influence in Vivaldi's music that the authors of the essays and the performers otherwise fail to prove. Overall the playing is alright, although I am not really enthusiastic about what is on offer here. That has also to do with the recording. Apparently to compensate for the reverberation of the venue where the recording took place (which is clearly audible at the end of movements), the miking is rather close. The two cello concertos are particularly unsatisfying: the sound of the cello gets right in your face, as it has been placed in front of the ensemble. I sometimes had the impression that the cello's solo part had been recorded in a different room. This has nothing to do with the role of the solo instrument as primus inter pares in Vivaldi's music (or in baroque solo concertos in general, for that matter). The part for transverse flute in the Concerto RV 96 is played at the recorder, but that is not mentioned in the track-list or the list of performers. I can't see this disc as a substantial contribution to the Vivaldi discography.

Vivaldi composed many violin concertos for his own use. However, he also had some virtuosic performers at the Ospedale del Pietà, and one of them was a real star, Anna Maria. As was customary, the orphans who were taken in and received a (musical) education, were known only with their forename, given to them when they entered. Anna Maria left a partbook which includes 31 concertos, most of them by Vivaldi. They comprise only the solo part and sometimes the bass. A number of these concertos are known from other sources, but some are not, and this means that they can only be performed through reconstruction. Michael Talbot, in his liner-notes to the Glossa recording by Modo Antiquo under the direction of Federico Maria Sardelli [4], explains how such reconstructions are possible, despite the scarcity of the material. One reason is that Vivaldi often reused material from previous compositions, slightly or more rigorously reworked. Moreover, there are certain patterns in his oeuvre which help the editor of reconstructions. The fact that some concertos include an organ part is not an additional problem, but in fact makes the reconstruction easier because of Vivaldi's habit of making the two instruments move in parallels or imitate each other. Even so, reconstructions of this kind are inevitably speculative, and unless the original concertos are found, we cannot be sure that these reconstructions are in accordance with what Vivaldi intended. In the end, it is the result that counts, and these reconstructed versions make an excellent impression and can be considered substantial additions to Vivaldi's oeuvre. The concertos for violin and organ are definitely the most interesting as to date we knew only a handful of pieces in this scoring. RV 774 and 775 were known, but only incomplete, whereas RV 808, as the number in the Ryom catalogue suggests, was not established as an authentic Vivaldi work until recently. With Federico Guglielmo we have an accomplished performer, who has a vast experience in Vivaldi's music; with his ensemble L'Arte dell'Arco he recorded a large number of discs with Vivaldi's music for Brilliant Classics. Roberto Loreggian is an excellent keyboard player, as he shows here once again. I had only wished they had used a larger organ with a broader palette of colours.

There has been quite some fuss about Nicola Benedetti's [5] forays in the world of baroque music, as I learnt from a search at the internet for her credentials. She has made a good career with later repertoire, and that may explain why I had never heard of her. At first, I was sceptical as I have encountered too often performers who jump the bandwagon of what seems to be selling well. However, Benedetti seems to be sincere: she has sought the advice of the Italian harpsichordist and conductor Andrea Marcon, and in her ensemble she collected some respected performers from the period instrument scene. Although she plays a modernized violin, I learnt from several sources that she uses gut strings and plays a baroque bow. That is also how it sounds, and overall I am quite happy with the way Benedetti plays Vivaldi. She does not entirely focus on the virtuosic aspects, but also pays much attention to the lyrical and expressive side of Vivaldi's concertos. She exercises restraint in her insertation of cadenzas, in that she does not use them to show off by making them too long or too virtuosic. The fact that, as a kind of 'encore', she adds an andante from another concerto, rather than a virtuosic fast movement, supports my impression of someone who takes the music seriously and does not use it for her own good. This disc, although unfortunately rather short, is a welcome addition to the discography, and I sincerely hope that Nicola Benedetti is willing to further explore the world of baroque violin music. How about some Tartini?

The concertos for the recorder and the flautino are among Vivaldi's most popular works. That has undoubtedly to do with their quality, but also with the fact that the number of baroque solo concertos for the recorder seems to be rather limited. There are fewer to choose from, certainly in comparison with what is availble for the transverse flute or the oboe. Many recorder players of name have recorded some or all of them, and Giovanni Antonini [6] is certainly a performer of that category. Given that he has been around for quite some time - Il Giardino Armonico was founded in 1985 - it is rather surprising that only now he has recorded Vivaldi's concertos. I have read some reviews of this disc which were all full of praise for Antonini's performances. His virtuosity and imagination are certainly impressive, and if there are still some who think that the recorder is not an instrument for virtuosic playing, this disc proves them wrong. However, I feel that Antonini focusses too much on technical virtuosity. In too many concertos, he did not make me enjoy the music. I am not saying that he uses them to show off, but to my taste he goes too far in emphasizing these concertos' - and his own - brilliance. In the largo of the Concerto in C (RV 443) he just does not add embellishments, he almost rewrites what Vivaldi has written down, comparable with the bad habit of some opera singers to rewrite, as it were, arias in the dacapo. The Concerto in F (RV 442), which closes the disc, is the most enjoyable piece of the entire programme, as here he keeps it relatively quiet. I should add that Il Giardino Armonico also falls for the temptation to try too hard to be different from the competition, a habit of quite some Italian ensembles. If I want to really enjoy Vivaldi's recorder concertos, I am turning to another disc.

[1] Concerti particolari
Academia Montis Regalis/Enrico Onofri, violin
Passacaille PAS 1100 (© 2021) details

[2] "Vivaldi con Amore"
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra/Elisa Citterio
tafelmusik TMK 1039CD (© 2019) details

[3] "Vivaldi"
Musica Antiqua Latina/Giordano Antonelli, cello
deutsche harmonia mundi 19439846222 (© 2021) details

[4] "Lost Concertos for Anna Maria"
Federico Guglielmo, violin; Roberto Loreggian, organ; Modo Antiquo/Federico Maria Sardelli
Glossa GCD 924601 (© 2020) details

[5] "Baroque"
Benedetti Baroque Orchestra/Nicola Benedetti, violin
Decca 485 1891 (© 2021) details

[6] "Concerti per flauto"
Il Giardino Armonico/Giovanni Antonini, recorder
Alpha 364 (© 2020) details

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