Antonio Vivaldi remains unrivalled for his gift of instant memorability and his knack of cutting straight through to the listener’s musical heart. Vivaldi manuscripts were must-have souvenirs for gentleman travellers visiting La Serenissima as part of the Grand Tour.
Venice is awash with string ensembles, bewigged or otherwise, playing Vivaldi. One group that stands out is Interpreti Veneziani.
Formed in 1987 and comprising nine members — 5 violinists, violist, cellist, bassist, and harpsichordist — the Interpreti Veneziani play over 300 concerts to approximately 70,000 listeners each year, most of them in the Chiesa San Vidal, a church where Vivaldi himself often played. The group’s repertoire includes not only an impressive number of works by Vivaldi and other Venetian composers, but also pieces by composers such as Bach, Mozart, Sarasate, Saint-Saens, and Bartok — all played with consummate virtuosity, sensitivity and humor, and without a wig in sight.
The 17th century Church of San Vidal provides fantastic acoustics for concertos and sinfonias and an intimate historic setting with exquisite paintings, such as that of St Vitale on Horseback by Vittore Carpaccio over the main altar.
We chose a concert that included The Four Seasons. When in Venice…
The details of Vivaldi’s life are surprisingly sketchy. Even extensive modern scholarship leaves many wide gaps in his whereabouts and activities. Biographies typically devote at most a few dozen pages to his career and the rest to his works. Indeed, only in 1962 was his birthdate determined from baptismal records to have been 1678; prior writers had placed it as early as 1669.
Vivaldi learned the violin from his father, a Venetian barber who played in the orchestra of San Marco cathedral. He was ordained in 1703 and, thanks to his flaming hair, became known as the Red Priest, but his ecclesiastical functions were forestalled by bronchial asthma, which denied him the stamina to say a complete mass. The next year he became a violin teacher at the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage for a thousand girls, of whom a few dozen received intensive musical training. In 1716, he became the music director.
Among his duties was to provide two concertos per month (even while he was away) for concerts given each Sunday by the school orchestra (in which, to the amazement of visitors, the students played all the instruments, rather than just the ones deemed suitable for ladies). Despite a bumpy relationship with the school administrators, Vivaldi enjoyed considerable freedom, not only to fill his compositions with whimsy and technical hurdles to challenge his students and display their artistry, but to travel extensively to fulfil commissions and to stage his operas. Although Vivaldi negotiated sizable fees for his work, he spent prolifically and died in poverty during a 1741 trip to Vienna, where he was given a pauper’s funeral.
The rediscovery – quite literally – of Vivaldi’s music began in the early 19th century, as a by-product of the renewed interest in the music of J.S. Bach. The pioneering Bach scholar J.S. Forkel referred in his 1802 biography to the German composer’s indebtedness to Vivaldi, and to his transcription for keyboard of his violin concertos. Over 20 Bach transcriptions were soon unearthed, including his concerto for four harpsichords and string orchestra. In 1850, over a century after Vivaldi’s death, the original work was identified by C.L. Hilgenfeldt as the tenth concerto of the Venetian composer’s Opus 3 – a concerto for four violins. Vivaldi, the composer, was on the map again, and the next 50 years saw the discovery of a good portion of the instrumental music. In 1905, a history of the concerto by Arnold Schering paid Vivaldi the compliment of him being the “exemplary for the shaping of the violin concerto” (in its three-movement, fast-slow-fast model).
It wasn’t until a 97-volume collection of manuscripts, owned by a Salesian monastery, came up for sale in 1926 that a broader representation of Vivaldi’s music was discovered. The collection was traced back to a Count Durazzo, who had purchased the lot from the Ospedale della Pietà, donated half to the monastery and passed the remainder to his heirs. Lawsuits overrode the Count’s will, which forbade publication, and private donations kept the scores intact and off the antiques market. Among them were a huge number of Vivaldi’s handwritten originals, including over 300 previously unknown works. Scholars delved through the treasure and were astounded by the unsuspected diversity and range. Since World War II, a burgeoning of biographies, catalogues, analyses, performances and recordings have led to a thorough re-evaluation of Vivaldi’s significance and a new understanding and appreciation of the scope of his art.
There have been further discoveries in subsequent decades, and the Vivaldi catalogue now lists over 500 concertos. 324 are for a single solo instrument (214 for violin, his favourite instrument), and the remainder are for multiple combinations or for orchestra without soloist.
As his first biographer Marc Pincerle noted, Vivaldi’s concerti fall into a general three-part pattern in which a majestic, vital opening and a rapid, playful finale are separated by a slow, lyrical movement of unprecedented depth, thus greatly extending the convention of the time of providing a brief, calming, functional interlude between the excitement of the outer movements. Pincherle suggests that the vitality, colour, rapidity, emotion and dramatic instinct of Vivaldi’s writing all anticipated the individualistic expression that ultimately would supplant formalism. Within his consistency of style, Vivaldi infused his work with constant variety, and although the violin was his favourite, he wrote concerti featuring nearly every instrument (other than the keyboard, curiously). Thus, Luigi Dellapiccola’s famous crack that Vivaldi didn’t write hundreds of concerti but only one concerto hundreds of times is true only in the most superficial sense and ignores the considerable invention of his work. Nowhere is this more evident than in The Four Seasons.
The Four Seasons is possibly the most popular classical piece of all time. There have been at least 200 recordings, and counting, and it continues to be irresistible to TV advertisers and mobile phone companies. It is piped promiscuously as telephone-hold music and into shopping malls from Buenos Aires to Bombay, and it has even infiltrated the American pop charts. Yet such is The Four Seasons’ picturesque charm and visceral energy that it has survived unscathed more than half a century of kitsch and commercialisation.
In 1725 in Amsterdam, Vivaldi published twelve violin concerti entitled Il Cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (literally translated, The Contest of Harmony and Invention). The first four were designated Le Quattro Staggioni (The Four Seasons). In his dedication, Vivaldi alludes to his patron having enjoyed them long ago and asks that they be accepted as if they were new, thus suggesting that they had been composed and performed much earlier.
While song and opera tie music closely to words, instrumental music at best reflects an abstract overall mood, but with The Four Seasons Vivaldi decisively bridged that gap. Each of the four concertos is prefaced by a sonnet (presumably written by the composer) full of allusions ripe for sonic depiction. Thus, the first greets Spring with a profusion of birds, the breath of gentle breezes, a murmuring stream, swaying plants, a goat herd lulled to sleep and shepherds holding a celebratory bagpipe dance. Summer brings torrid heat, buzzing insects and a violent storm. Fall brings a harvest celebration and a hunt and Winter chattering teeth, stamping feet, slipping on ice, shelter by an inside fire and, for a zesty conclusion, a howling windstorm.
Not only are the individual verses printed in the score alongside the music they are intended to depict, but Vivaldi adds further phrases (“the barking dog”, “the tears of the peasant boy”, “the drunkard”) to clarify specific allusions. His music depicts some rather literally (accurate imitations of specific bird calls and pizzicato raindrops) and others metaphorically (dissonance to underline a winter chill, rapid scales to portray swirling winds.) While all this may sound like a dry schematic for a sound effects track, it all fits musically and centuries later is still enthralling to hear and enjoy. While The Four Seasons may have originated as a routine assignment for his girls to play once, Vivaldi clearly poured his heart and soul into this work.
Vivaldi himself was reputed to be a daring, “freakish” technician; one of the few accounts of his playing predicted Paganini, by describing his fingers so close to the bridge that there was barely room for the bow. Scholars who have studied Vivaldi’s autograph scores note that the published versions are often simplified to encourage accessibility, thus suggesting that actual performances were more daring. They further assume that what appears to be tedious repetitive sequencing was enlivened with extemporized variety. Yet, these works were meant for girls in a convent to display their poise before well-heeled patrons, and what may have passed for wild abandon in its time could be quite mild by modern standards.
Nigel Kennedy became well known to most people through his ground-breaking interpretation of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, and his 1989 recording of it became one of the best selling classical albums of all time. Kennedy has made a career out of being an enfant terrible and defying the musical establishment. At least underneath his clowning is a huge talent. His unique talent and improvisational technique has done much to popularise classical music, particularly among young people. But his unconventional style has put off traditionalists. Known for stretching the boundaries of classical music, Kennedy espouses the need to take on new technical challenges – “If you’re playing within your capability, what’s the point?” he asks. “If you’re not pushing your own technique to its own limits with the risk that it might just crumble at any moment, then you’re not really doing your job.” He considers it part of his job to take risks musically. He could do that without the condescension he shows traditionalists. He claims he was never going to adhere to stereotypes, yet he has no trouble stereotyping others, and, worse, calling them names. All so he can project his carefully built image of rebel with a cause. Yehudi Menuhin is probably turning over in his grave.
Earlier this month, we attended the three-hour performance of The New Four Seasons at the Perth Concert Hall. Kennedy and his 11-piece orchestra performed their new interpretation of The Four Seasons plus dedications, straddling the baroque, Russian and Polish folk, as well as a unique and powerful take on the rock ‘n’ roll of Jimi Hendrix (at which point some people walked out. Truth be told, we would have as well, but there were too many people to get past!). A quarter century after recording Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with the English Chamber Orchestra, this new acoustic, live version of the Italian composer’s violin concerti comes with all of Kennedy’s extraordinary skill, passion and on-stage clowning, and significantly less swearing. When you go to a Nigel Kennedy concert you know you’re not going to get period Vivaldi. During his first concert in Perth in March 2006, in Kings Park, the audience also didn’t get suitable language for a family friendly concert. Or so thought the people who complained after the concert about the frequent use of the f word. That might explain why he hasn’t come back to Perth for 11 years!
Limelight reviewed the concert.
Kennedy’s New Four Seasons takes Vivaldi’s concertos as a starting point for what becomes a kind of Baroque-jazz-folk-rock fusion. The violinist treated each movement like a jazz standard. The melodies and chord progressions of The Four Seasons are so familiar that – as with well-loved jazz chart – there’s pleasure to be had in surprising departures, novel approaches and a thrill of recognition as an unusual turn leads back to the head. Pawel Tomaszewski’s amplified piano and Kupiec’s bass give the music night-club feel over the growl of Ezmi Pepper’s cello in Summer, while broken guitar chords fill in for harpsichord. Tribal beats underpin droning bass-lines as Kennedy winds exotic improvisations over the top. In the faster passages he practically head-bangs to Vivaldi’s surging rhythms. Autumn opens with Kennedy strumming his violin like ukulele against a walking bass, jazz chords from the piano setting the stage for some wild blue-grass soloing, Kennedy not afraid to rough up the sound and get gritty. Kennedy playfully sprinkles his improvisations with references, dropping a fragment from Beethoven Five into the first movement and Jimi Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner into the finale, in which his cadenza is almost an electric guitar solo. Kennedy breaks the cycle of The Four Seasons to squeeze in a lively tribute to Stéphane Grappelli – Grappelli’s upbeat blue-grass Swing 39 – before Dominic Kelly’s oboe solos kick off Winter, Kennedy showing he’s still got plenty of fiddle chops as he solos furiously in a series of fantasias on Vivaldi’s movements before a blistering finale. While this treatment of The Four Seasons might not be to everyone’s taste, the world will never lack for traditional servings, so it’s wonderfully refreshing to hear a fresh take on it. And though this rendition isn’t as heavy on electronic effects as Kennedy’s 2014 album (a 25th anniversary release of the 1989 album), the live energy of his performance is still convincing.
One of our favourite performances of The Four Seasons was by I Musici, Italy’s oldest chamber group, and also one of the most respected ensembles in existence today. Their 2015 visit to Brisbane was part of the 2015 Queensland Music Festival and the Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s 30th anniversary. An appreciative and enthusiastic audience received warmly the tight knit, twelve-part chamber group (who have, since their inception, existed without a conductor so as to ensure an egalitarian relationship among the twelve). I Musici’s performance of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons was fresh, dynamic and brimming with energy. All this without any clowning.
Limelight reviewed this concert as well.
The first half of the concert included popular favourites from Vivaldi (Sinfonia in C Major) Rossini (Overture to The Barber of Seville), Mascagni (Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana) and Verdi (opening Sinfonia Nabucco). Sinfonia in C Major was a fitting first work to establish from the outset the group’s precision, range, and stylistic purity. I Musici’s affinity as an ensemble was evident throughout, each group of instruments sounding as one rich voice. It was evident that lacking a conductor is no impediment when the members of a group are so attuned to one another; with frequent glances across the ensemble and absolute professionalism, I Musici demonstrated that unanimity on technical and interpretive questions is achievable amongst twelve individual musicians.
The second half of the concert was dedicated to I Musici’s performance of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. I Musici are credited with introducing 18th century Italian music to the world through their recordings of this piece, the first of which was made as early as 1955 (the group was established in 1951). Numerous recordings later, the group has a certain authority with regard to the work and delivering authentic performances of it. Hearing such a masterful performance of Vivaldi’s original work from I Musici served as a reminder that just because a piece of music has become somewhat ubiquitous does not mean that it cannot sound fresh, invigorating and incredibly alive, in a traditional performance.
The opening concerto, Spring, with its jaunty ritornello, is instantly recognizable, and I Musici’s performance was crisp and fresh. In the ensuing passage, reminiscent of birdsong, solo violinist Antonio Anselmi allowed the halting melody to follow its own natural rhythm, as opposed to slavishly observing the constant and continuous Baroque motor, conjuring a natural, idyllic sense. Some excellent work from the violas in the second movement before the dancing Allegro of the third movement brings the season to a close.
The beginning of Summer, in the minor key, was played languidly and liltingly, evoking images of woozy, drifting post-Spring celebrations. The tumultuous storm sequence in the third Presto movement featured some superb playing from Anselmi, and perfectly controlled accents and dynamics from all. The jolly Autumn opening movement featured dainty, light sections from first violin, cello and harpsichord, and the Allegro movement was powerful and triumphant.
The magnificent Winter concerto provided an excellent finish to a spectacular performance. Anselmi handled the frantic, virtuosic melodic solo line perfectly, without shying from the furious pace of the first movement. The beautiful Largo movement evoked images of warm fireplaces, and the final, frenzied Allegro maintained the groups energy to the last.
Taking stylistic liberties, but never to the point of indulgence, I Musici were true to both Baroque conventions and to the spirit of Vivaldi’s masterpiece, which sought to capture the ‘natural’ world in music. Sixty years after the release of their first recording, I Musici still play this famous suite of four concertos in a unique way, full of surprises in tone colour, tempo and ornamentation.
After four encores – three Vivaldi, one Donizettti – and a well-deserved standing ovation, the lights came up in the Concert Hall while the audience was still applauding.
Red Priest deliver a viscerally dramatic version of The Four Seasons. Since Vivaldi himself was “a maverick and a showman”, the members of the baroque ensemble Red Priest (Piers Adams, recorders; Julia Bishop, violin; Angela East, cello; and Howard Beach, harpsichord) choose to “cast aside the rulebook”. The result is refreshing. And for those wondering, the ensemble named itself after Vivaldi, who was a redhead and a priest.
Red Priest’s idiosyncratic approach is rooted in historic performance practice. The musicians merge a range of techniques, ornamentation, improvisation, articulation, bow strokes and vibrato to evoke a maximum amount of colour and make every nuance and emotion in the music larger than life. Baroque composers delighted in re-arranging music by others, quoting themes by earlier composers, or even themselves in making arrangements older works and material. Red Priest take this fluidity one step further by drawing unexpected parallels between composers from different countries and different schools to create unified concert experiences that are at once both theatrical and acutely musical. We have seen Red Priest in 2003 as part of their Musica Viva tour. They didn’t play The Four Seasons, but they played Vivaldi and Bach as part of a Baroque Fantasy concert and almost 14 years later we still remember vividly how much we enjoyed the concert.
Also in 2003, we heard Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s authentic interpretation of The Four Seasons. This was no routine, run-of-the-mill performance. The most enduringly popular of all baroque concertos for the violin came across as if freshly minted but always within the line and contour of the 18th century. Superbly synchronised, soloist and orchestra were throughout pitted against each other in insightful ways. Many factors contribute to performance, not least technical finesse and stylistic integrity, both of which were present in abundance. Over and above these crucial factors, though, was a youthful exuberance, a shared enthusiasm that elevated whatever the ABO touched to impressive levels of achievement.
Vivaldi’s Four Seasons has undergone many reincarnations since it was first played by the talented orphans of the Ospedale della Pietà in 18th century Venice. In 2015, the Australian Chamber Orchestra
explored the musical connections between East and West, pairing Vivaldi’s Baroque masterpiece with original compositions by ARIA Award-winning oud virtuoso, Joseph Tawadros. The program notes for the concert quoted Islamic art specialist and Art Gallery of WA director Stefano Carboni’s book Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1797:
“The artistic consequences of the dynamic relationship that Venice forged with its Islamic trading partners, especially the Mamluks of Egypt and Syria, the Ottomans of Turkey, and the Safavids of Iran, were felt over nearly a thousand-year period. The same merchant galleys that carried spices, soap, cotton, and industrial supplies from the bazaars of the Islamic Near East to the markets of Venice also brought with them luxurious carpets, velvets, silks, glass, porcelain, gilded bookbindings, illustrated manuscripts, and inlaid metalwork. Not surprisingly, these and other portable works of Islamic art, which were often superior in quality to what was available in Europe, made an indelible impression upon artistic taste and production in Venice. From the medieval to the Baroque eras, Venetians acquired Islamic art and adapted and imitated its techniques. In turn, albeit to a lesser extent, the arts of Venice became of interest to the Islamic world.”
East-West connections were evident throughout the program, which kicked off with an antiphonal sonata for three violins by Gabrieli before alternating, in another form of antiphony, between Joe Tawadros’ Arabic traditional, rock, jazz and blues-inflected originals as orchestrated by Tognetti and the four concertos with comprise Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Richard Tognetti on violin, Joseph Tawadros on the oud and James Tawadros on the riq and the bendir (the former a tambourine like instrument, the latter resembling the Celtic bouro) formed the nucleus of a lineup of ten ACO string players with harpsichordist and organist Neal Peres Da Costa and lutenist and guitarist Tommie Andersson on continuo duties, that performed one of the most rhapsodic, lyrical, explosive and imaginative Four Seasons you’re ever likely to hear.
The classic pear-shape of Joe’s oud echoed the shape of Andersson’s theorbo, essentially a large lute, which instrument, and its name, is derived from the oud. Joe’s florid improvisations and elaborations of composed material echoed Tognetti’s stylish embellishments of Vivaldi’s solo-violin lines, which Joe sometimes doubled or ornamented. The driving rhythms, often underscored by James on the tambourine-like riq or bendir of Vivaldi’s sequences and hypnotic repetitions echoed Joe’s repeated bass lines and hypnotic harmonies.
More fundamentally human connections came to the fore in such works as Joe’s moving “farewell waltz” Point of Departure, written in memory of his parents, and in fleshing out the descriptive qualities of Vivaldi’s Seasons. In terms of sheer visceral virtuosity however, it was in the stormy outer movements of ‘Summer’ and the intense finale of ‘Winter’ that the whole band cut loose, with Tognetti’s and Joe Tawadros’s lightning-fast passages and improvisations taking instrumental technique to its very limits while James Tawadros and the rest of the band obliged with equally dazzling feats of ultra-tight ensemble playing. This was a Four Seasons for all seasons.