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5.110008 - VIVALDI: Flute Concerti, Op. 10
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Antonio Vivaldi ( 1678–1741)
Flute Concerti, Op. 10

Known in his native Venice as the red priest, from the inherited colour of his hair, Antonio Vivaldi was born in 1678, the son of a barber who later served as a violinist at the great Basilica of St Mark. He studied for the priesthood and was ordained in 1703. At the same time he had 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. 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. Vivaldi’s association with the Pietà continued intermittently throughout his life, from 1723 under a contract that provided for the composition of two new concertos every month. At the same time he enjoyed a connection with the theatre, as the composer of some fifty operas, director and manager. He finally left Venice in 1741, travelling to Vienna, where there seemed some possibility of furthering his career under imperial patronage. He died there a few weeks after 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.

Visitors to Venice had borne witness to Vivaldi’s prowess as a violinist, although some found his performance more remarkable than pleasurable. He certainly explored the full possibilities of the instrument, while perfecting the newly developing form of the Italian solo concerto. He left nearly five hundred concertos. Many of these were for the violin, but there were others for a variety of solo instruments or for groups of instruments, including a score of such works for solo flute or recorder, with strings and harpsichord. 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.

The VI Concerti a Flauto Traverso, Opera Decima, (Six Concertos for Transverse Flute, Opus 10), five of which exist in earlier versions which specify alternative solo instrumentation, whether for flute, recorder or violin, were published in Amsterdam by Le Cène in 1728, with a title-page in which Vivaldi is described as Musico di Violino, Maestro del Pio Ospitale della Citta di Venezia e Maestro di Capella di Camera di S.A.S. Il Sg:r Principe Filippo Langravio d’Hassia Darmistaht (Violinist, Master at the Pio Ospitale of the City of Venice, Chamber Kapellmeister to His Highness Prince Philip, Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt). The second appointment stemmed from a period of three years, probably from 1718 to 1720, that he spent in Mantua in the service of Prince Philip, who was Governor of Mantua from 1714 to 1735, the year before his death. The title-page is a further indication, if any were needed, that Vivaldi retained his connection with the court in Mantua.

Some of Vivaldi’s concertos carry descriptive titles and the first of the published set of flute concertos, the Concerto in F major, RV433, has the title La tempesta di mare (Sea-Storm), shared with two other related concertos for flute, oboe and bassoon. The same evocative title had been used for the fifth of the dozen concertos published in 1725 under the general title Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (The Contest of Harmony and Invention), where it is placed immediately after The Four Seasons. There is, however, no sign of the kind of detailed programme that had marked those popular concertos, the meteorological disturbance generally indicated here by dramatic scales and rapid figuration. There is a sudden and unexpected pause, a break in the storm, before the calm of the slow movement, dissipated by the activity of the final Presto.

The second concerto of the set, the Concerto in G minor, RV439, has the descriptive title La notte (The Night). The mysterious first movement has the same title, to be followed by the fantasmata of the night, nightmare figures of nocturnal dreams, from which there is a brief relief in a slow central section. This is followed by Il sonno (Sleep), a movement that repeats the sleep of the drunken harvesters of Autumn in The Four Seasons. The concerto ends with lively waking dreams.

The Concerto in D major, RV428, has the title Il gardellino (The Goldfinch) and is able here to suggest the sound of bird-song, with the help of two solo violins, as in The Four Seasons. The slow movement, here in its scoring for sopranino recorder and continuo, evokes a pastoral scene in its use of the shepherd dance, the siciliano, with its gently undulating rhythm. This is capped by the expected energy of the third movement in which the flute has the help of a solo violin.

Perhaps composed specially for Opus 10, the fourth work, the Concerto in G major, RV435, again allows two violins to support the soloist in the first and last solo entries of the first movement. Violins and viola introduce the Largo before the flute aria. The rhythmic variety of the final Allegro is a further example of Vivaldi’s classical mastery of the form that he had developed.

The fifth concerto, the Concerto in F major, RV434, is closely related to the second of two concertos scored for solo recorder, RV442, and the movements formed the basis of arias in three of Vivaldi’s operas. There is an opening movement of lively charm that makes some use of a rising chromatic figure, familiar from other writing of the period. The following slow movement has unusual turns of melody in its solemn progress and leads to a final Allegro that restores the world to rights.

The set ends with the Concerto in G major, RV437, a work that is related to the Concerto for recorder, violin, bassoon and continuo, RV101. It is known to some as Il cavallo (The Horse), although this is not a title used in the original publication. There is, of course, the octave leap of the opening figure of the first movement, but a probable explanation of the nickname must lie in the rhythms of the last movement, which follows a simple aria that seems to demand embellishment.

Other concertos include three for flautino, generally identified with the sopranino recorder rather than the anachronistic piccolo. The first of these, 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.

Keith Anderson

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