May 05, 2022


Vivaldi: The Four Seasons; Verdi: The Four Seasons—Ballet Music from “Les Vêpres siciliennes.” Marco Fiorini, violin; I Musici. Decca. $14.99.

Carlo Monza: String Quartets. Members of Europa Galante (Fabio Biondi and Andrea Rognoni, violins; Stefano Marcocchi, viola; Alessandro Andriani, cello). Naïve. $16.99.

     Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is so overwhelmingly popular today – arguably the best-known piece in classical music for many people – that it is hard to imagine just how neglected it was for two centuries: The Four Seasons was first recorded in 1942, which was 201 years after Vivaldi’s death. And The Four Seasons is so familiar now that its groundbreaking elements are taken for granted and do not seem exceptional at all. But they were: the extent of tone painting, the determination to create very specific pictures in music (using poems appended to the score and apparently written by the composer himself), and the demands of the string writing (especially for the soloist), were all quite new in Vivaldi’s time. The Four Seasons opened floodgates of expressiveness that are not fully acknowledged only because what initially came through was just a trickle: it would not be until many years after Vivaldi’s death that his innovations in The Four Seasons were fully accepted and expanded. That said, the innumerable recordings of these first four concertos in the 12-work sequence called Il Cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione make it very difficult nowadays to justify additional recordings of The Four Seasons. Yet the new Decca release featuring I Musici nevertheless manages to be very special. It is a 70th-anniversary performance for the ensemble – not for these specific members, of course, but for I Musici as a group. The initial 1952 recording was enormously popular, drawing considerable attention to music and performers alike. And even though the current dozen members of I Musici are new, a connection with the original ensemble remains, since solo violinist Marco Fiorini is the son of one of the original I Musici violinists, Montserrat Cervera. But of course none of this would matter to listeners if the performance were less than exemplary, “exemplary” being the basic expectation of The Four Seasons now that the music is thrice-familiar. The good news is that the performance is excellent, finely balanced, sensitive to period style, filled with nuance, and beautifully paced. It is not especially innovative – it would have been interesting, for instance, to have someone read the original poems, as was done in a groundbreaking Max Goberman performance on LP decades ago – but it certainly belongs in the top tier of recent recordings. And in one way it is highly unusual: instead of being paired with now-typical choices for filling out a disc (Piazzolla’s Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas has become a recent favorite), the Vivaldi is here offered along with ballet music, also called The Four Seasons, from Verdi’s 1855 melodrama, Les Vêpres siciliennes. This is not the original full-orchestra scoring, of course: it is an arrangement for string orchestra and piano by Luigi Pecchia, who performs the piano part. Verdi used a different sequence from the one Vivaldi chose – winter, spring, summer, autumn – and of course created a set of dances rather than four works in concerto form. The juxtaposition of the Vivaldi and Verdi pieces proves to be as pleasant as it is unusual, offering the chance to hear very different interpretations of seasonal changes, written in very different compositional eras, but performed throughout with notable panache by an ensemble that retains a sense of its own history while also fully acknowledging the place of Vivaldi and other composers in their own times.

     Vivaldi’s successful tone painting ties to some extent to his skill as a composer of opera, for which he still tends to be under-appreciated. He is not, however, as under-appreciated as a later Italian composer, Carlo Monza, who was born in 1735, six years before Vivaldi’s death, and lived until 1801. Monza wrote 20 operas, half with libretti by Metastasio, and was very well-thought-of in his time; but like so many lesser lights of the Classical era, he fell rapidly into obscurity and never quite emerged from it. Until now, that is: Fabio Biondi and three other top players from Biondi’s Europa Galante period-instrument ensemble have made world première recordings for Naïve of six chamber works by Monza – quartets that are as operatic as they come. All have titles, one of which is actually Opera in Musica, indicating that Monza knew exactly what he wanted to do in creating works that were intended to be very popular (it is easy to forget that at this time opera was mass entertainment, not something rarefied, limited and very expensive to attend). There is nothing profound in these Monza quartets, but there is a great deal that is highly attractive, and there are more than a few surprising twists and turns in the music. Emotions tend to be writ large and steeped in melodrama, with repeated dips into sections marked recitativo (two in Opera in Musica) and the frequent use, within movements that are invariably short, of contrasting slow and fast sections. The most operatic of the six works is called Gli Amanti Rivali (“Rival Lovers”) and essentially compresses a typical operatic plot into five movements lasting a total of only nine minutes. Each movement has a title, ranging from Si sfidano (“The Challenge”) to the inevitable Il duello (“The Duel”) and a largo when, alas, L’amante favorito muore (“The Favored Lover Dies”). One other quartet here, a three-movement, eight-minute one, has titles for each movement. It is La Fucina di Vulcano, “Vulcan’s Forge,” which portrays Vulcan’s jealousy of his wife, Venus; the way she soothes him; and their journey to Olympus. Then there is Il Giuocatore, “The Gambler,” in which the title character bemoans his losses and at the end is left ravveduto (“repentant”). The only minor-key work among these six is really no darker than the others. It is called Divertimento Notturno and has only tempo indications for its four movements, all of which are crepuscular rather than truly nocturnal. And the work that listeners might expect to be most pictorial, La Caccia (“The Hunt”), is much less so than would be anticipated, focusing on hunters and shepherds rather than imitating horn calls or creating chase scenes along the lines of what Vivaldi did in L’autunno. Biondi and Andrea Rognoni are, respectively, first and second chairs among Europa Galante’s violins, with Stefano Marcocchi first-chair violist and Alessandro Andriani first-chair cellist. Any egos associated with priorities within the ensemble are entirely absent in this recording, however, as the four players perform with the finely honed individual and ensemble instincts of a quartet whose members are thoroughly familiar and comfortable with each other. These Monza quartets are curiosities rather than profound rediscoveries, but they are uniformly well-made, make their points clearly and quickly (the 25 movements on the CD last a total of just 60 minutes), and make up in entertainment value what they lack in emotional heft.

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