VIVALDI: The 4 Seasons / Violin Concertos, Op. 8, Nos. 5-6 (Anthony Newman/ Cho-Liang Lin/ Sejong/ Steven Epstein) (Naxos: 8.557920)
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Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741): Concertos, Op. 8
The Four Seasons • La tempesta di Mare • Il piacere
Every biography of Antonio Vivaldi begins with the fact that his father Giovanni was a barber, but Giovanni was also a professional violinist, and he was the only teacher his famous son would ever have. Antonio quickly became a first-class violinist, good enough to perform with his father at St Mark's in Venice, but no one thought of a musical career for the boy because he was headed for a life as a priest. He was tonsured at the age of fifteen and ordained a priest at 25, but soon ceased to say Mass, on the claim of some weakness of health.
Vivaldi had dedicated himself, in fact, not to religion but to music. In 1703, just a few months after his ordination, he was named maestro di violino at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà, a school with important musical traditions for orphan or indigent girls in Venice, and he would remain associated with the Pietà in some way for the rest of his life. In that era, perhaps more progressive than our own, the Ospedale believed that teaching these girls to play an instrument would give them a useful skill, rescue them from a life of poverty, and keep them from becoming lifelong burdens on the state. At the Ospedale, Vivaldi's responsibilities were to teach the violin and to write music for the girls to play, and it was for the use of these girls that he wrote most of his 450 concertos.
Vivaldi did not remain an unknown violin teacher at the school. With the 1705 publication of his Opus 1, a set of trio sonatas, his name quickly spread throughout Europe. By the time he came to publish his set of concertos, L'Estro armonico, in 1711, he turned to Estienne Roger, a music publisher in Amsterdam. Not only were Roger's printing techniques far superior to anything then available in Italy, but Vivaldi's music was better known in Northern Europe than in Italy. Among its admirers was Johann Sebastian Bach, who transcribed ten of Vivaldi's concertos as a way of understanding what he had achieved with concerto form.
Little is known about Vivaldi the man. He was nicknamed il prete rosso (the red priest), apparently for his red hair, and by all accounts he was a difficult person. He was sickly, suffering from asthma throughout his life, vain, hot-tempered, and fascinated by money; everyone who met him said that Vivaldi drove a very hard bargain. Yet he squandered his fortune, much of it in the effort to succeed as an opera composer. He died unexpectedly on a trip to Vienna at the age of 63, and, like Mozart, he was buried in an unmarked grave in that city of music.
In 1725, when he was 47, Vivaldi published in Amsterdam a set of twelve concertos as his Opus 8, giving them the title Il cimento dell'armonia e dell' inventione (The Contest between Harmony and Invention). The first six of these concertos, the concertos on this recording, have descriptive titles, and the first four, The Four Seasons, have become some of the most famous music ever written. Each is a miniature tone-poem depicting events of its respective season, and Vivaldi printed a sonetto dimostrativo (illustrative sonnet) with each concerto that explained what the music depicts. The Four Seasons are an early example of programme music, but audiences should not expect the kind of detailed musical depiction of a composer like Richard Strauss. Strauss, who once said that his highest aim was to write fork music that could never be mistaken for a spoon, was a master at painting scenes with an orchestra. Vivaldi's music, written nearly two centuries earlier, can seem a little innocent by comparison: his fast movements tend to depict storms, the slow movements shepherds falling asleep, but this music is so infectious and appealing, the many little touches so charming, that The Four Seasons seem to have an air of eternal freshness about them. They were popular from the first instant, and the music was quickly reprinted in Paris and performed throughout Europe. In our own day, it was a recording of The Four Seasons after World War II that led the revival of interest in baroque music, and they have been recorded over two hundred times since then.
Each of the four is in the standard form of Vivaldi's concertos; the first movement opens with a ritornello, a refrain that will recur throughout the movement; between its appearances, the soloist breaks free with florid, virtuoso music of his own. The slow movement, always the briefest in the concerto, is a melodic interlude, while the finale, dynamic and extroverted, is sometimes cast in dance form.
Spring marches in joyfully with a buoyant ritornello, and soon the solo violin brings trilling birdsongs and the murmur of brooks and breezes. Thunder and lightning break out, but the birds return to sing after the storm. In the slow movement a shepherd sleeps peacefully while his dog keeps watch, his vigilant bark heard throughout in the violas. Nymphs and shepherds dance through the final movement, which shows some relation to the gigue, but the movement is no wild bacchanal, and Spring concludes with this most dignified dance.
At the beginning of Summer the world limps weakly under a blast of sunlight; the ritornello is halting and exhausted. Soon the solo violin plays songs of different birds, cuckoo, dove, and goldfinch, and later the melancholy music of a shepherd boy, weeping at the prospect of a storm. The Adagio depicts more of his fears: buzzing mosquitoes and flies alternate with blasts of thunder. The concluding Presto brings the storm. A rush of sixteenth-notes (semiquavers) echoes the thunder, and lightning rushes downward in quick flashes.
The jaunty opening of Autumn depicts a peasants' dance, and the solo violin picks up the same music. Soon the violin is sliding and staggering across all four strings, as the peasants get drunk and are collapsing and falling asleep; the Adagio molto, an exceptionally beautiful slow movement, shows their "sweet slumber". The final movement opens with the sound of the orchestra mimicking hunting horns. Vivaldi's portrait of the hunt is quite graphic; the violin's rushing triplets depict the fleeing game that finally collapses and dies from exhaustion.
At the beginning of Winter the orchestra "shivers" with the cold, and later vigorous "stamping" marks the effort to keep warm. In the Largo, a graceful violin line sings of the contented who sit inside before a warm fire while outside raindrops (pizzicato strokes) fall steadily. In the concluding Allegro, the solo violin shows those trying desperately to walk over ice. The ice shatters and breaks and strong winds blow, but Vivaldi's music concludes with a sort of fierce joy; this is weather that, however rough, brings pleasure.
The next two concertos in Opus 8 also have descriptive titles, but, lacking the sonetto dimostrativo that would spell out the events depicted, this music remains more generalised in its expression. The Concerto in E flat major, La tempesta di mare (The Storm at Sea), frames an expressive central Largowith outer movements marked Presto and driven by non-stop energy. The Concerto in C major, has the title Il piacere (The Plea