VIVALDI: Recorder Concertos
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Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Complete Recorder Concertos
Antonio Vivaldi was born in 1678, the son of a barber who later served as a violinist at the great Basilica of San Marco, where the Gabrielis and then Monteverdi had presided. Vivaldi studied for the priesthood and was ordained in 1703. At the same time he won a reputation for himself as a violinist of phenomenal ability and was appointed violin-master at the Ospedale della Pietà. This last was one of four such charitable institutions, established for the education of orphan, indigent or illegitimate girls and boasting a particularly fine musical tradition, which attracted visitors to Venice from other countries. Here the girls were trained in music, some of the more talented continuing to serve there as assistant teachers, earning the dowry necessary for marriage. Vivaldis association with the Pietà continued intermittently throughout his life, interrupted in 1718 when he moved for three years to Mantua as Maestro di Cappella da Camera to Prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt, appointed governor of the city by the Emperor in Vienna. In Venice again, in 1723 Vivaldi returned to the Pietà under a freer form of contract that provided at first for the composition of two new concertos every month, some of which he would himself direct. At the same time he enjoyed a connection with the theatre, as the composer of some fifty operas, and possibly many more, and as director and manager. He finally left Venice in 1741, travelling to Vienna, where there seemed some possibility of furthering his career under the imperial patronage of Charles VI, whose relatively sudden death proved as inopportune for Vivaldi as it did for the Habsburg dynasty. Vivaldi died in Vienna in July, a month to the day from his arrival in the city, in relative poverty. At one time he had been worth 50,000 ducats a year, it seemed, but now had little to show for it, as he arranged for the sale of some of the music he had brought with him.
In perfecting the newly developing form of the Italian solo concerto Vivaldi played an important part. He left nearly five hundred concertos. Many of these were for his own instrument, the violin, but there were others for a variety of solo instruments or for groups of instruments. He claimed to be able to compose a new work quicker than a copyist could write it out, and he clearly coupled immense facility with a remarkable capacity for variety within the confines of the three-movement form, with its faster outer movements framing a central slow movement.
Vivaldi wrote three solo concertos for the flautino, an instrument on the identity of which there has been some speculation. It seems now agreed, however, that the instrument in question is the sopranino recorder, and not the piccolo, an instrument that makes its appearance later in the century, or the flageolet, usually so designated by Vivaldi. He shows no mercy to the little recorder, an instrument pitched an octave above the treble recorder and sounding an octave higher than its written part, demanding feats of the greatest agility.
The Concerto in C major for sopranino recorder, RV 443, starts energetically, the opening ritornello leading to an incredible display of agility from the soloist, repeated in further solo episodes. The E minor slow movement is a solo aria, in the characteristic rhythm of a siciliana, accompanied by the sustained notes of the upper strings and the repeated rhythm of the bass. The original key is restored in the final Allegro molto, the opening ritornello with its decorative trills developed in the following solo episode. The recorder indulges in trills, arpeggios and rapid triplet figuration, interrupted by brief passages from the main body of the orchestra that give a necessary pause for breath.
The ritornello that opens the Concerto in A minor for sopranino recorder, RV 445, is more restrained in pace, followed by a solo episode based on divided chords. Passages in C major and E minor lead to a solo section of virtuoso triplet figuration, ending in trills before the final orchestral ritornello. The strings start the A minor slow movement, with violins and violas providing a unison accompaniment to the soloist in the following passage, a moving aria. The duple time final movement again offers infinite variety within the limits of its structure, as solo episode succeeds episode in increasing brilliance.
The Concerto in C major for sopranino recorder, RV 444, starts with an orchestral ritornello marked by the accompanying dotted rhythms of the lower strings and continuo, the soloist partly accompanied at the first solo entry, before moving forward into triplet figuration and then into further episodes of increasing virtuosity. An A minor Largo follows, the soloist offering a lightly accompanied operatic and ornamented lament. The mood changes at once with the final Allegro molto, a further example of Vivaldis imaginative exploitation of the possibilities of the tiny solo instrument.
Vivaldi published his Concerto in F major for treble recorder, RV 442, in Amsterdam in about 1728 in an alternative version for transverse flute, RV 434, as part of his Opus 10, six flute concertos. The first movement has a gently pastoral mood, with solo episodes framed by elements of the opening ritornello and duly modulating, and an echo of the more sultry of the Four Seasons. The slow movement, marked Largo e cantabile and transposed from F minor to G minor in the version for transverse flute, is a melancholy siciliana, with vestigial accompaniment. The final Allegro is in ebullient mood in the expected structure. Elements of the concerto also appear in one way or another in some of Vivaldis operas.
In the Concerto in C minor for treble recorder, RV 441, the recorder has a share in the opening tutti before the rapid triplet figuration of the first solo episode, with its telling use of sequential patterns and modal touches. Later episodes bring rapid displays of dexterity, alternating with passages of greater repose. The F minor slow movement has a solid chordal opening, before the entry of the solo instrument with a melody of simple outline that invites ornamentation. There is a solemn opening to the last movement, a stately contrast with the agility of the first recorder solo entry with its rapid arpeggios. The contrast between the orchestral ritornello and the solo episodes continues until the movement comes to an end.
The Concerto in D major, RV 95, La Pastorella, belongs to a group of chamber works on a smaller scale than the fuller solo concertos with their accompaniment of string orchestra and harpsichord. The concerto is scored for recorder or violin, oboe or violin, violin, bassoon or cello, and keyboard, making performance possible with strings and continuo. Vivaldi uses echo effects in the opening, before the entry of the solo recorder with bassoon accompaniment, and the same echo pattern is used as the opening passage and its derivatives recur, framing solo recorder episodes. The slow movement is a siciliana for an unspecified solo instrument, presumably recorder or violin, and harpsichord, and the last movement starts in fine fugal style, as recorder, oboe, violin and bassoon enter in order, a texture later to be resumed as the instruments enter in other orders of precedence, before the movement comes to an end.