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8.573003 - VIVALDI, A.: Cantatas - All'ombra d'un bel faggio / Lungi dal vago volto (Moynihan, Ensemble Nota Velata)
Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)
Antonio Vivaldi is one of an unfortunate, if select, group of composers whose fame rests almost exclusively on a single work. Unlike such other Baroque one-hit-wonders as Pachelbel and Albinoni (not that Albinoni actually wrote “his” famous Adagio), however, Vivaldi—hugely popular and influential during his lifetime—is slowly but steadily achieving greater, and richly deserved, recognition today. His oeuvre is in fact broad and wide-ranging, including several hundred sonatas, sinfonias and concertos, of which The Four Seasons is but one, as well as more than forty operas, numerous sacred choral works and around forty cantatas.
Born in Venice in 1678, Vivaldi was one of six children. His father, Giovanni Battista Vivaldi, was a professional violinist, and taught his son to play the instrument. Evidently a gifted student, Antonio would eventually become known as one of the most brilliant violinists in Europe, touring across the continent. His fiery personality and inspired playing was legendary, to the extent that one contemporary, evidently of a somewhat nervous disposition, wrote that his performance ‘really frightened me’, and another diagnosed him with ‘having too much mercury in his constitution’, leading to a ‘volatile’ character. From the age of fifteen, however, Vivaldi also trained to become a priest and in 1703 he was ordained, a fact that, in conjunction with his red hair, led to the nickname il Prete Rosso (The Red Priest). The same year saw his appointment as a violin teacher at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, a girls’ orphanage where, despite several spats with the administration (Vivaldi was notoriously proud and sensitive, as well as being occasionally prone to boasting), he would work for the greater part of his career, eventually becoming the music director. The Ospedale was famed for its choir and orchestra, and much of Vivaldi’s work was intended for performance by them. Nonetheless he continued to travel abroad during this period, being invited to Mantua, Milan and Rome, where he met some important patrons, even playing before the Pope.
Despite his international renown, Vivaldi’s star gradually began to fade, and by the late 1730s he was in financial difficulties. He left his native city for Vienna, and it was there that he died in July 1741. Despite this rather quiet end to an illustrious career, Vivaldi left behind him an extraordinary legacy. His music—wonderful on its own merits—broke new ground, inspiring a generation of younger composers, including JS Bach.
Vivaldi’s cantatas, in the so-called Neapolitan style, take the form of alternating da capo arias and recitatives, as was the convention. They have generally received less attention than his instrumental works, but they possess their own beauty and expressive language and contain many inspirational moments to engage the listener. Two of them, All’ombra d’un bel faggio, RV 649 and Lungi dal vago volto, RV 680, were written during Vivaldi’s brief spell at the court of Prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt in Mantua around 1718–20. All’ombra d’un bel faggio describes the pastoral love between two archetypal Arcadian figures, the shepherdess Eurilla and the shepherd Tirsi. Michael Talbot has suggested that the cantata’s characters stand in for Princess Theodora (daughter of Philip) and her lady-in-waiting Countess Margherita Pavesi Furlani, respectively, and that the text is a metaphor for the loyalty and affection felt by the Countess for the Princess. It was indeed not uncommon for musicians and playwrights to represent their patrons on stage as stock characters from a mythical past, and both Theodora and Margherita had in fact previously performed such rôles themselves in plays written for the court. Lungi dal vago volto, for soprano and obbligato violin, takes place in a similarly Arcadian setting, and deals with the joys and torments of love. With its sensitive text-setting and imaginative interplay between voice and violin it wonderfully captures a sense of longing and separation.
Allor che lo sguardo, RV 650 and Che giova il sospirar, povero core, RV 679 both date from later in Vivaldi’s life, certainly sometime after 1725. The latter is a sad lament over the singer’s unrequited love for the apparently beautiful but cold Irene. With its lush full-string accompaniment and flexible, expressive vocal line, it is similar in style to many of Vivaldi’s operatic arias. In Allor che lo sguardo, the object of affection is called Lucinda, the love is also unrequited, and the setting is once again pastoral, though the accompaniment is simpler in style. The opening aria, introducing the singer’s love for the shepherdess, is filled with longing, and the second aria, with its lively rhythms and dramatic melismas, conveys the anguish of the rejected lover.
By contrast Perché son molli, RV 681 was probably written prior to Vivaldi’s Mantuan adventure. The first aria strikes a tone of calm resignation, as the singer resolves to leave Arcadia, where his presence brings only sorrow. The lengthy recitative that follows evokes his sense of disquiet and the cacophonous sounds of animals, to which the music responds with unsettling runs and stuttering repeated chords. The second and final aria, characterised by dance-like rhythms and a light, flexible vocal line, ends the cantata with yet another affect, as the singer pictures a cheerful Arcadia after he has departed.
Many hallmarks of Vivaldi’s style—dramatic expression, word-painting, virtuosity, energetic rhythms, complex modulations and melismatic writing—are clearly heard within the cantatas. His vivid musical imagination illuminates every aspect of the music, which finds a balance between elegance and inspiration, delicacy and fire.
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