The Avison Ensemble - Vivaldi: Concerti Opus 8 - Audiophilia


I still remember it just like it was yesterday! The year was 1986 and, while browsing a rack of vinyl, I happened upon an attractive-looking, black gatefold sleeve; the music was familiar, but the orchestra and record label were not. Suitably impressed that they went to the trouble of listing the microphones used for the recording, I bought it. The band was the Drotningholm Baroque Ensemble, the label BIS ... and the music was Vivaldi's ‘Four Seasons'. What that small group of musicians achieved in managing to completely reinvigorate such an overplayed classic, to find so much more energy, drama, beauty and pathos in those familiar tunes than I have ever heard before or since, still astounds me to this day. However, BIS's CD transfers during the ‘80s could be extremely poor, so my search for a recommendable version on silver disc has been ongoing.

Performances on modern instruments I have rejected en masse - usually bludgeoned to death by oversized orchestras and slow tempos, none offered the essential nimbleness and piquant timbres of the small authenticist ensembles. One that I held out high hopes for was the 2000 recording by the extraordinary Giuliano Carmignola, with Andrea Marcon and the Venice Baroque (Sony SK90391). As much as I love their later series of discs premiering newly discovered Vivaldi concertos - whose robust physicality, extremes of light and shade and sense of high drama are unmistakeably Italian - their Four Seasons was a substantial disappointment. Failing to capture the score's essential rustic flavours, and with some of the quicker movements apparently played as fast as is humanly possible, the subtlety and beauty of Vivaldi's uniquely vivid musical impressionism was not given its due.

For all of the many commercial recordings of the Four Seasons on offer, it is rare to find them offered in their proper historical context - as numbers 1-4 of twelve concertos published in 1725 as Vivaldi's Opus 8, "The Trial Between Harmony and Invention". Indeed, complete period instrument recordings of the other Opus numbers have also been few and far between; I purchased the first complete Opus 9 (‘La Cetra') on vinyl upon release in the late ‘80s, and I believe that Opus 4 (‘La Stravaganza') only became available in Rachel Podger's spectacular recording with Arte dei Suonatori in 2003 (CCS 19598). So, it was impossible not to be excited by this new disc from England's Avison Ensemble, led by the hugely experienced Pavlo Besnosiuk, which comes hot on the heels of their eye-opening recording of Handel's Concerti Grossi Opus 6 (Linn CKD362). If they could carry over the passion and energy from that performance to the Vivaldi, we'd have a winner on our hands!

Strangely, though, I don't think they have. There is no real indication in the Four Seasons' movement timings, which are broadly in line with other recent recordings, and nothing to fault in the ensemble's playing or balance, yet I found the performance curiously four-square and lacking in adrenaline - somewhat "old-fashioned", if you like, when compared to the high octane playing typical of modern period instrument practice. These concertos mine so much of their essential character from the solo violin, and Pavlo Beznosiuk chooses not to stamp his personality on them; doesn't make them cry and leap and soar in the way that a handful of larger egos have managed! Others will take that as a positive, seeing in it a return to stylishness and musical values. Still, it's an argument that can wait, given that we're only a third of the way in!

It may be that the best-known Vivaldi concerto after these four is the similarly programmatic ‘La Tempesta di Mare' ("Storm at Sea") ... and you're in luck, because that's up next as the fifth concerto of Opus 8 (though remembering that Baroque composers never expected these works to be performed all at once and in sequence). In one respect, it simply continues the musical exploration of nature's fury from ‘Winter' - and furious it is, with its central largo offering an oasis of peace - yet it is also undeniably true that a piece of this stature is required to bring the listener back down to earth! Progressing through the remaining concertos on the second disc, I am increasingly struck by the constant flowering of harmonic inspiration and the sublime perfection of form that characterises all of Vivaldi's composition, and no less by the sumptuous splendour of Linn's recorded sound - clean and detailed, with just the right amount of warmth and ambience. Again, the musicians have opted to exercise a modicum of restraint in their playing, setting the feet tapping more so than the pulse racing, and certainly finding nothing in the scores to unsettle or confront the listener. It's a valid artistic decision and not something to get too hung up on - the net result is simply lovely.

There's no way to approach something as emotive as the Four Seasons in a dispassionate fashion, so I haven't been shy about wearing my prejudices on my sleeve. It is also true that many will not share them, while to others still they will be meaningless. From a loftier perch, what is undeniable is that we have here a beautifully packaged, beautifully recorded, finely played and thoroughly desirable release that places some of our best-loved music in its proper historical context. Indeed, I can't help but reflect that it would make the most perfect present for anyone with a musical bone in their body, whether an aficionado or someone who just "knows what they like" ... so if you find yourself on the horns of a gift-giver's dilemma, look no further
09 July 2012