About this Recording
5.110001 - VIVALDI: Four Seasons

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

The Four Seasons

Concertos for Double Orchestra RV 582 and RV 581

Brilliant, unconventional and vain, it was Antonio Vivaldi's boast that he could compose a complete concerto in less time than it took to copy out the parts. Ordained as a clergyman, he sported a head of flaming red hair that earned him the sobriquet 'The red priest'. As a composer and virtuoso violinist he was famed throughout Europe. His first appointment was as violinist at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà, a Venetian institution that cared for and offered musical training to orphaned and abandoned girls. The musical abilities of the girls were so remarkable that services at the Pietà attracted not only Venetian nobility but foreign visitors as well. Soon after his arrival, Vivaldi found himself in trouble with the ecclesiastical authorities. While celebrating Mass, he suddenly disappeared into the sacristy (he claimed it was due to the asthma that had plagued him since childhood, others said he had retired to write down a fugue before he forgot it). The incident led to his being forbidden to say the Mass thereafter. But while his piety may have been questioned by some, his musical worth to the Pietà was undoubted, and it was here that he wrote some of the most influential music of the eighteenth century.

Vivaldi had an unfailing ability to attract controversy throughout his life and, as the most famous Italian composer of his generation, he was never short of critics. Whereas one contemporary ascribes his perceived compositional shortcomings to 'having too much mercury in his constitution', his mastery of the violin was indisputable. Another describes him playing passages which 'really terrified me, for such has not been nor can ever be played; he came with his fingers within a mere grass stalk's breadth of the bridge so that the bow had no room - and this on all four strings with imitations and at incredible speed'.

His first major publication, a series of twelve concertos for one or more soloists entitled L' estro armonico, was published in Amsterdam in 1711. The set was a musical landmark setting the course for the developing concerto form and turning it into a brilliant display piece for the soloist. Such was their impact that older, established composers felt compelled to change their own styles in response. In Germany, where the concertos were particularly highly regarded, even the great Johann Sebastian Bach transcribed five for harpsichord.

By the time the set of concertos entitled Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione (literally, the conflict of harmony and invention) appeared in 1725, Vivaldi was at the height of his fame. This is the set containing The Four Seasons, one concerto representing each season. These pieces have become so familiar that it is easy to overlook the incredible inventiveness that has gone into their composition. Vivaldi takes all manner of non-musical ideas and elements, whether they be drunkards stumbling, a shepherd in despair, or the oppressive heat of an Italian summer, and contrives to integrate them into as perfectly balanced apiece of music as exists. In fact, Vivaldi seems determined to stretch the boundary of the musical form to its limit in the quest to realise its full artistic potential. It is testament to his genius that in this conflict of harmony and invention, both sides seem to win.

The score of each concerto is annotated with a sonnet, each line written next to the musical element describing it, for example the buzzing of insects and a barking dog in the second movement of Spring. These instructions challenge the performer to transcend the purely musical and approach the work from a wider angle. How to characterise the bird calls in Summer or capture the terror and excitement of the hunt in Autumn? Violinistically, the concertos offer the widest possible canvas ranging from expressive cantabile to the brilliantly virtuosic, making them favourites with both audiences and performers alike.

Vivaldi was a great innovator, one of the first composers to use clarinets and the assembler of some truly outlandish combinations of instruments. But in the two concertos written for the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, for solo violin and two separate orchestras, Vivaldi was following an old Venetian tradition.

In this combination, he leaves no possibility unexplored. The solo part is packed with violinistic fireworks and the two orchestras are used layer on layer to build up a fantastic web of sound. By way of contrast, in the central movement of both concertos the soloist is accompanied by the simplest possible unison line of violins, perhaps a representation of the spiritual purity of the Virgin Mary. Both concertos have cadenzas in the last movement, written by Vivaldi in the C major concerto, in the D major, left to the soloist to improvise.

Much of the material for both orchestra and soloist is bright and brilliant, although in both concertos there are tortured passages where Vivaldi introduces a tritone interval, known in his day as the devil 's interval, into the thematic material. In the first case [track 13, 4:12] it is an expressive way of delaying and intensifying the following resolution. In the second, [track 18, 3:55] it creates a tension which is not properly resolved, ending the last solo passage with an air of resignation, immediately contrasted by the bustling and jubilant last tutti of the combined orchestras

David Juritz

The Recordings
Four Seasons

This recording of Vivaldi's Four Season, was made utilising 24bit 96kHz technology. It was recorded and edited in five channels to provide a "typical" surround mix. This is to say the sound stage is spread over the front three channels, whilst the rear channels contain the natural ambience of the Church of St Silas the Martyr, Chalk Farm, to give the listener a realistic representation of the acoustic in which the performance took place. This is immediately apparent if one mutes the rear channels.

Concertos for the Assumption of the Virgin Mary

For the Concertos for the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, we employed a different tactic. Written for two independent string orchestras, these were recorded with the soloist, David Juritz, standing in the middle of these two groups. This seemed an ideal opportunity to position the orchestras accordingly in surround sound, so for both concertos, orchestra one is positioned in the front channels and orchestra two in the rear. Listening to this in post-production, Juritz commented that hearing it played back this way was as close to the sensation of playing the work in situ as he could imagine.

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