March 07, 2019

(++++) VIVA!

Vivaldi: Concerti per Archi III; Concerti per Viola d’amore. Alessandro Tampieri, violin and viola d’amore; Accademia Bizantina conducted by Ottavio Dantone. Naïve. $20.99 (2 CDs).

Vivaldi: Concerti per Violino VI, “La boemia.” Fabio Biondi, violin and conducting Europa Galante. Naïve. $16.99.

Vivaldi: Concerti for Mandolin in D, RV 93, and in C, RV 425; Trio Sonata in C, RV 82; Raffaele Calace: Concerto No. 2 for Mandolin; Domenico Caudioso: Concerto for Mandolin. Julien Martineau, mandolin; Concerto Italiano conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini. Naïve. $16.99.

     For nearly 20 years now, Naïve has been proving that even the most knowledgeable classical-music lovers only thought they knew Vivaldi. Since 2000, the label has been releasing dozens upon dozens of once-lost Vivaldi works found at the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin. There are nearly 60 releases so far, with three more planned for release annually until the projected completion of the series in 2027 – a year shy of the 350th anniversary of Vivaldi’s birth. The sheer scope of the project is staggering, but even more so is the sheer quality of the music. Who knew that Vivaldi did so much, in so many fields, so well? His reputation has long rested on a mere handful of his works, and even though The Four Seasons violin concertos are among the most popular classical pieces of all time, they are scarcely representative of his entire oeuvre. Vivaldi churned out concerto after concerto, opera after opera, year after year, and pretty much everything he produced was of enormously high quality and was exceptionally creative by the standards of his time.

     There’s the rub, as Hamlet would say. The ways in which Vivaldi advanced music are extremely subtle and indeed often almost inaudible to all but the best-trained ears in modern times. As wonderful as his music is, much of it sounds the same: it is very difficult to pinpoint a specific concerto and say that it significantly increased the range, tone or character of instrumental playing. With Bach – who, let us remember, was an admirer of Vivaldi, and who adapted various Vivaldi works – the assertion of advancement comes easily. With Vivaldi, the sheer scale of his production and the perfection with which he utilized a concerto form that he himself largely cemented (if not invented) combine in such a way that few of his individual works stand out. And this is scarcely the case only for his violin works, of which there is a plethora because Vivaldi himself was a master violinist (although one whose technique seems to have been somewhat unconventional and therefore controversial). For instance, Vivaldi wrote some three dozen bassoon concertos, all of them marvelous and none of them particularly distinctive compared with any of the others.

     All this makes the flood of material from the Naïve series somewhat difficult to absorb. Except for fanatical Vivaldi devotees, few listeners will want the complete series (which is scarcely inexpensive). But deciding which recordings to purchase is by no means easy, at least where the concertos are concerned. And this means that at least some decisions may be based on the individuals and ensembles performing the material – or on a desire to hear the specific instruments for which Vivaldi created some of his outpouring of concerto material.

     Naïve has been scrupulous in engaging excellent period-instrument and historical-performance groups for this series, and the two latest releases show that. The third Concerti per Archi offering features Alessandro Tampieri and the Accademia Bizantina conducted by Ottavio Dantone, while the sixth Concerti per Violino offers Fabio Biondi both as soloist and as conductor of Europa Galante. Fans of Tampieri and/or Dantone and/or Biondi will be drawn to one or the other of these releases, if not both; but there are other ways to make a selection. There are only five surviving Vivaldi concerti for viola d’amore – RV 393-397 – and anyone interested in them will certainly want the Tampieri/Dantone release so as to hear just how this solo instrument, whose additional strings vibrate sympathetically when its primary ones are played, is used by Vivaldi to produce especially telling effects. Yet the two-CD set is actually dominated by 13 violin concertos: RV 109, 117, 118, 126, 138, 142, 145, 152, 155, 161, 163, 165, and 167. But if there is little that is highly distinctive among this baker’s dozen, there is a great deal that is delightful and, indeed, everything is beautifully formed and well balanced, as Vivaldi’s music invariably is.

     Listeners specifically seeking an unusual set of Vivaldi’s violin concertos may, however, turn instead (if not in addition) to the grouping known as La boemia, composed while Vivaldi was being idolized in Prague in 1730-31. These works – offered by Biondi and his ensemble in the sequence RV 282, 278, 380, 186, 288, and 330 – get particularly interesting performances, because Biondi creates cadenzas to link movements that are in different keys. There is some historical justification for this, but it is scarcely normal practice. Thus, listeners looking for a more-traditional (and equally historically accurate) approach will gravitate to Tampieri/Dantone, while those interested in some creative interpretation and reinterpretation of the Vivaldi legacy will be attracted to Biondi. It is through differences like these – in the context of performances of equal excellence – that the Naïve series continues to thrive and delight.

     A different Naïve release, featuring Julien Martineau on mandolin, approaches Vivaldi more typically by being highly selective in what music by him it offers. Martineau and Concerto Italiano under Rinaldo Alessandrini (who conducts from the harpsichord) select two Vivaldi mandolin concertos and one trio sonata to display the Venetian master’s prowess and creativity in music for Martineau’s instrument. All three pieces stand up as well as anything in the Vivaldi series itself, showcasing the skill of construction, beauty of form and virtuoso expectations (born of thorough knowledge of every instrument for which he wrote) that make Vivaldi’s music both distinguished and instantly distinguishable from other works of the same time period. However, the main attractions on this CD, for fanciers of the mandolin, will likely be the two works that are not by Vivaldi. The concerto in G by Vivaldi’s contemporary Domenico Caudioso, of whom virtually nothing is known with any certainty (not even his birth and death years), is a warm, beautifully balanced work that explores the mandolin’s expressive potential in even more ways than Vivaldi does in the pieces heard here. The broad first movement, charming second and vivacious third add up to a very lovely work indeed. And then there is the second mandolin concerto by Raffaele Calace (1863-1934), a modern mandolin master (and luthier) who created this very extended and passionate piece in the unlikely key of A minor. But the concerto exists without its orchestral part – so Martineau commissioned an orchestration by Yann Ollivo for this recording. Whatever the pluses and minuses of the accompaniment in terms of how idiomatic and true to Calace’s period and style it is, the fact is that the concerto is a genuine masterpiece. It takes the mandolin to depths and heights far beyond anything envisioned by Vivaldi, Caudioso or any other composer of an earlier era. It requires enormous skill in fingering and phrasing, and very considerable virtuosity simply to play the material at the speed at which Calace calls for it to be performed. This is truly a tour de force for mandolin and without a doubt the highlight of the Martineau/Alessandrini CD. The extended first-movement cadenza, for example, brings forth sounds of which the mandolin scarcely seems capable; indeed, it sounds at times as if two mandolins are playing simultaneously, to very Paganini-esque effect. And the second movement’s warmth leads to a finale in which the sheer expressive range of the mandolin proves to be well beyond anything that listeners will likely expect. Martineau is a highly skilled, very sensitive performer who is beautifully supported by Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano, and this CD as a whole is an absolute joy to hear – both for those especially interested in Vivaldi and for those looking for some little-known and thoroughly delightful music by other composers.

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