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The Avison Ensemble - Vivaldi - The Consort


01 July 2012
The Consort
Michael Talbot

Recording the concertos of Vivaldi's op.8 (1725), and especially the Four Seasons cycle that stand at the head of the collection, poses a severe challenge to any group aspiring to make its mark on the early music scene. Respect for what is known of authentic practice reduces the permissible interpretative options, yet the understandable desire to sound 'different' and even to claim an extra measure of authenticity in this or that detail necessarily works in the opposite direction. The situation becomes particularly acute when a complete collection that can be listened to in one sitting is presented to the listener, for here it becomes desirable not only to differentiate the group's interpretation from every other interpretation but also to individualise the interpretation of each constituent work, be it only through a different choice of continuo instruments, in order to prevent tedium.

The first novelty in this version by the Avison Ensemble is that a solo violin is retained throughout the twelve works. The ninth and twelfth concertos first saw life as oboe concertos - the absence of double-stopping and the restricted compass would allow one to guess this even without the verbal confirmation - and Vivaldi (or rather his Amsterdam publisher, Le Cène) duly mentions the oboe as an alternative solo instrument. Most recordings substitute oboe for violin, and the fact that Beznosiuk does not do so makes this recording unusual, though certainly not unique.

The second point of distinction is that this is an interpretation characterised overall by lyricism - indeed gentleness - rather than panache, even on the soloist's part. To this end, tempos are kept moderate, with the opportunity for subtle fluctuations, and immense attention is paid to the shaping of individual notes (some final notes and chords are gorgeously pampered). The effort pays off: this is a Vivaldi less visceral than some, but more transparent and revealing of detail than most. Such avoidance of exaggeration may not seem in principle much of a virtue, but I find it a refreshing antidote to the power-driven, impulsive interpretations so common in Vivaldi performances today.

That said, there are some little things to murmur about. No two modern interpretations of the harpsichord realisation for the 'sleeping drunkards' movement in the slow movement of the Autumn concerto ever sound the same, and it is striking how few of these realisations do the obvious (i.e., something similar to violin parts, whenever the 'arpeggio' instruction appears), which is to devise a standardised broken-chord figure for the right hand that can be repeated, with notes smoothly changing to fit the harmony, over the full length of the passage.

Beznosiuk's harpsichordist, Roger Hamilton, begins by merely spreading the dotted-minim chords (not really what Vivaldi and his contemporaries mean by 'arpeggio'), then embarks on a swirling rhapsody that only towards the end coalesces into the kind of simple figuration he should have adopted from the start. I find Beznosiuk's ornamentation a little too imprecise in rhythm, although I applaud his skill at making improvised (or quasi-improvised) matter sound distinct, on account of its delicate quality, from the written notes. I think it was rash of him to ornament the solo line so fully in the slow movement of the Spring concerto, since this queers the pitch of the 'rustling leaves' figuration in the orchestral violins.

Here and there, I spotted some questionably inflected (or not inflected) notes. Since I have been a joint editor of The Four Seasons I am more aware than many of the minefield that baroque accidentals can constitute, the central problem lies in the retention (or not) of chromatic inflection after the first note bearing the accidental. 18th-century music is fairly consistent in applying certain ground rules - significantly different from the modern ones - but one always has to be extra-vigilant whenever composers such as Vivaldi, with his taste for bizarria, enter chromatic territory, since more than one musical solution is theoretically possible. Finally, I was puzzled by the non-observance of several 'piano' directions in the original engraved score, which I imagine survive in all modern editions. Such directions are not so common as to be that readily discounted.

All things considered, this is a version to recommend. It presents Vivaldi not as a freak of nature but as a civilised musician with a well- developed taste for the experimental. Congratulations too, to Simon Fleming for a very informative and thoughtful booklet essay mirroring the solid virtue of the performance.


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Related Links

Pavlo BeznosiukPavlo Beznosiuk
The Avison EnsembleThe Avison Ensemble
Vivaldi: Concerti Opus 8Vivaldi: Concerti Opus 8