Another new recording of The Four Seasons? And why not?
"It was the work's nature as a visionary masterpiece that prompted us to contemplate "yet another" recording, since music of such magnificence still permits entirely new interpretations...Moreover, we consulted an often neglected manuscript source, the "Manchester manuscript", which offers extremely intriguing variants, especially as regards articulation, shedding new light on certain passages." Amandine Beyer
If there is one work that has been recorded an incalculable number of times, it is undoubtedly Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Since the rediscovery of its composer in the 1930s, this score has become the emblem of his output, and has been committed to disc in many different versions representing the most diverse and varied aesthetic approaches, sometimes radically opposed to one another. So, you quite rightly wonder, why bother to make a new recording?
There are many reasons. First of all, despite its celebrity, The Four Seasons is a masterpiece of the violin literature and of the classical repertoire in general. This cycle of concertos has often been scorned because of its programmatic aspect, which has been interpreted as a sign of weakness in the composition and its discourse. But it was precisely this programme that stimulated Vivaldi's imagination to create the most original concertos of his oeuvre, and even of the whole late Baroque era. In structural terms, none of the four concertos representing the seasons resembles any other concerto by the composer. Ever surprising, ever imaginative, Vivaldi pushes violin technique and concerto form beyond their customary limits, to obtain a result that was totally unprecedented at the time.
And it is that originality which compels us to free ourselves from certain interpretative habits, and to find technical and musical solutions capable of expressing Vivaldi's ideas to the full, while naturally passing them through the prism of our own imagination and subjectivity. For example (and this is not a joke!): how do you turn a viola into a dog, or two violins into a pair of pestering flies? What type of arpeggio can a harpsichord use to suggest the deep but tormented sleep of a drunkard? What tempo is most apt to make the cello's bariolages sound like crackling flames at a welcoming fireside? You can hear our answers to these questions and many others, the fruits of our experiments, in our ‘new' version of this visionary masterpiece.
However, as with any other work, and, paradoxically, even for The Four Seasons, it is necessary to establish a basic text, a process which entails a certain number of sometimes tricky decisions. Although we took as our reference the version printed by Le Cène in 1725, we consulted an often neglected source, the ‘Manchester manuscript', which offers extremely intriguing variants, especially as regards articulation and unusual chromatic and harmonic colours, shedding new light on certain passages. In parallel with these novelties in the text itself, we found it particularly interesting to rediscover the environment in which the work was written. The Four Seasons was premiered in Mantua around 1720, probably by an ensemble of virtuoso soloists. We felt this justified a highly flexible approach to the great rhythmic freedom characteristic of Vivaldi's fantasiosa style. Lightweight forces and freedom of phrasing: that seemed the perfect combination to us, and we tried our best to adopt it...
To mirror The Four Seasons, the emblematic work of the prete rosso, we decided to record three of his least-known concertos, two of them never before issued on disc. Such is the case with the Concerto RV 372, a magnificent piece dedicated to Chiara, one of his most endearing pupils at the Pietà. A work ‘made to measure' for the little hands of this highly gifted violinist, and which also seems to be a psychological portrait of the young girl's mercurial character. It contrasts strikingly with the atmosphere of the Concerto RV 390. In its bold structure and its changes of rhythm and atmosphere, this work closely resembles The Four Seasons. But the key of B minor, tragic and tormented, gives us a glimpse of a much more dramatic reality, perhaps reflecting the circumstances of the composer's last years. And we could not resist the pleasure of recording (quasi a l'improvviso!) the Concerto RV 578a, which was recently rediscovered by the musicologist Olivier Fourés. His talents enabled us to work from a score skilfully reconstructed from the puzzle of the manuscript, and thereby gave us the chance to revive a composition which had probably not been performed for well-nigh three hundred years. Seven concertos, twenty-three movements, all of them windows opening onto the immensely rich and voluptuous world of Vivaldi...
La maniera italiana ‘In the solo passages I gave free rein to my imagination and played in the Italian manner, that is to say in the style that comes most naturally to me.' Paganini The imitation of sounds with the voice, the breath, the body, or other instruments, is the very source of the phenomenon of music. Yet, over time, this original aspect was neglected by Western art music (with the exception of vocal repertory), to such an extent that it was necessary to create the term ‘descriptive' or ‘programme' music for any instrumental piece that alludes to an ‘extra-musical' image or scene. The golden age of this ‘descriptive music' doubtless coincides with the era of the north Italian violinist composers of the seventeenth century. Strongly influenced by folk traditions, these musicians did not hesitate to imitate on their instruments all manner of beasts, bells, explosions, musical instruments, and other more or less defined sounds, and to give their works evocative titles such as La bavosa (Caprioli) or Capriccio stravagante (Farina), the latter featuring feline mewings, farmyard cluckings, and other onomatopoeic passages; examples of such pieces abound.
But, beyond the anecdotal side of these works, the constant sonic experimentation that they stimulated also made a substantial contribution to the development of violin technique, to imaginativeness in performance, and to the very appearance of the instrument: numerous makeshift devices appeared, involving paper, sawn bridges, little bells, gloves and fabrics, different ways of tuning, ‘crossed' or omitted strings, hairless bows, and monstrous mutes to be operated with the chin - as well as the violins of Gasparo da Salò, Amati, and Stradivari.
It was only logical that such effervescence should generate a considerable school of violinistic gimmickry that would continue all the way to Paganini - who was capable of imitating the braying of a donkey on the fourth string in order to address certain members of his audience. One particularly outstanding figure in this movement was Vivaldi. Faithful to the tradition of his predecessors, the prete rosso imitated the bagpipe, the horn, the drum, the organ, and all kinds of feathered creatures during his exhibitions of virtuosity, and transformed viols and violins to make them sound like trumpets. Nevertheless, his Four Seasons may be considered as the epitome of ‘programme music': the richness and complexity of their compositional technique and descriptive ambition are entirely without precedent.
In these four concertos, the performers must tackle a multitude of images, both concrete (chattering teeth, winds, sniffing, a cuckoo, dancing, a dog, shivering, flies, hiccupping, rain, fire, falling over, and so forth) and emotional and abstract (pursuit, anxiety, joy, sadness, drunkenness, fighting, pleasure, sleep, dreams, cold, heat), not forgetting the principal underlying topos of the seasons, namely (of course) the parable of life. In this respect, it is noteworthy that each of the seasons gives a central role to sleep, the ersatz of death. In short, and in keeping with the Baroque spirit, the work admits of a double reading, allowing each interpreter to set off its anecdotal side against complex personal emotions; Vivaldi's kamikaze cuckoos would probably have terrorised their well behaved Beethovenian feathered cousins.
These compositions stand apart from the rest of Vivaldi's output, even among his other concertos with outlandish titles, a fact explained by the specific context in which they were written. In his novel Les Météores (Gemini), Michel Tournier expresses his astonishment that the most famous work of Venice's most famous musician should take the seasons as its subject: how could one be interested in nature in a city which left no place for the natural world? But in reality, The Four Seasons was composed in Mantua between 1718 and 1720, when Vivaldi was Maestro di Cappella di Camera at the court there, and it is obvious that the provincial, rural atmosphere of this town made the urban virtuoso acutely aware of the characteristics of nature and rustic life. It should also be pointed out that the dedicatee of the published edition of the concertos, Count Morzin (who had got to know Vivaldi in Mantua), possessed four allegorical statues of the seasons in his palace in Prague.
Vivaldi certainly performed the principle part of the concertos himself, but the excellent small ensemble available to him in Mantua allowed him to introduce greater complexity into the workings of the ripieno parts, modifying the concerto design he had established in his compositions up to that time; a new virtuosity and a new role for the orchestra emerge here.
When Vivaldi published these pieces in Il cimento dell'Armonia e dell'Invenzione in 1725, he gave them a highly specific role. Whereas, in his other sets of concertos, he endeavoured to disseminate concepts of a general nature, Il cimento conveys a more personal, more practical message: Vivaldi presents here his own violinistic style, declaring his allegiance to and championing the ‘noisy', traditional, localised violin movement of the previous century. Moreover, it was on this occasion that he had his portrait printed with wig, open shirt and pen, in a sense presenting the collection as his method. Seen from this perspective, The Seasons must not be regarded as an exception in Vivaldi's output; in fact, the work analyses, synthesises, and showcases his customary interpretative resources.
It was doubtless to ensure that he would be properly understood, and to underline the anecdotic side of the publication, that he added Sonetti paraphrasing each of the concertos; these sonnets were probably from his own pen (apparently the prete rosso did not fear the anathema of the muse Erato.... How better to explain the flottando than as the rustle of a leaf, the marcato as a hiccup, the trillo as a shiver, the glissando as a sniff, and microtonality as a drunken stupor?
Even if certain academic musicians such as Geminiani and Quantz were to denounce the school of violin ‘noises', the influence of The Four Seasons on the development of Western violin playing was immense: every violinist in Europe fought his way through these pages, ‘the only pieces that can withstand comparison with the sonatas of Corelli', which became a obligatory test-piece for virtuosos, notably in France, where they were placed on the same level as the Matinées of Gaviniès as late as the start of the nineteenth century.
The fact that the poems were written after the music was composed is worthy of note, since this implies that the ideas which had aided in the construction of the work had not at first been explicitly expressed. We are therefore justified in surmising that Vivaldi may have had recourse to images to compose other pieces too, but without specifying this in writing, since he played them himself or worked directly with his interpreters.
The narrative, theatrical aspect of Vivaldian discourse appears clearly in many of his concertos, such as RV 372 and 390, two late works which can be dated to the last five years of his life. The complex relations between solo, accompaniments and ensembles, the contrasts and qualities of timbre, and the deployment of melody and rhythm, especially with regard to articulation, phrasing and accentuation, result here in a genuine drama: a kind of narrative without words, the height of expressive ambiguity. Tartini said that ‘to play well, one must sing well'; Vivaldi never said anything of the kind, but one understands that for him, to play well was to tell a story well.
The Concerto RV 372 was intended for Chiara, one of Vivaldi's finest pupils at the Ospedale della Pietà. This piece shows she must have possessed, in addition to a brilliant and precise violin technique, a lively, amusing, mischievous character, which certainly inspired the only Allegro molto e spiritoso (one might gloss this as ‘energetic and with humour') we know Vivaldi to have written. Unlike this concerto buffo, an illustration of ‘everyday life' in Venice, the Concerto RV 390 aspires rather to some sphere of the imagination. The solemn, severe mood of the introduction and the ritornellos contrasts with the remarkable lyricism of the solo sections. The slow movement, on its bed of pizzicatos, is a summit of its genre.
The Concerto RV 578a was rediscovered only a few days before this recording was made. It is an early version of the second concerto of L'estro armonico, which diverges from the printed source on numerous points, notably by ending with a completely different finale. Quite apart from the intrinsic musical interest of this youthful piece (c.1705-10), which is remarkable for its imagination, personality, and style, it is also significant for what it tells us about the changes Vivaldi effected before publication: he made the counterpoint more complex, added a viola part, changed the character of the solos, and removed a folk-dance, clearly ‘improvements' aimed at the tastes of the public he sought to conquer.
In short, this first version permits us to define the creative and - by extension - interpretative essence of the prete rosso: naturalness.