The Avison Ensemble - Vivaldi: Concerti Opus 8 - BBCi
A delightful new set which showcases The Four Seasons' startling originality.
Vivaldi's Four Seasons is one of the most recorded works of all time. Does the world really need another version? When the performances are as ingratiating and thoughtful as these, the answer is a definite yes. As extra enticement, The Avison Ensemble under the direction of soloist Pavlo Beznosuik offer not just the first four but all 12 violin concertos which make up Vivaldi's Op.8, "The trial between harmony and invention".
The north of England-based musicians play on period instruments, but listeners who are used to the visceral dynamism of groups such as Fabio Biondi's Europa Galante may be surprised by this more refined sound, characterised by relatively long note values and smooth articulation. The playing is enchanting, and almost always persuasively apt - try the subtle solo ornamentation in the second movement of Spring; the marvellously pulsing orchestral build-up at the start of Winter; and its lyrical second-movement solo, effectively contrasted with energetic cello line and delicate pizzicato violins.
Beznosuik is a sensitive soloist, not shy to take the limelight, but he never hogs it. He and his ensemble are capable of rawness and bite, but they employ them more sparingly than some groups - arguably with stronger impact. You will be disappointed if you want Vivaldi's depiction of the dog in Spring to snarl from the texture; but the final movement of Winter is ear-pinningly intense, and the conclusion of Autumn has a sharp-edged attack, infused with the earthiness of percussively strumming lute.
Highlights from the rest of the set include Beznosuik's impressive virtuosic displays in the finale of No.8; the almost Bach-like sophistication of No.11, the most substantial concerto in the set; and the rustic joy of No.12. Occasionally a touch more flamboyance would be welcome (the first movement of No.5, "The storm at sea", sounds more like a minor squall), but in general these well-nuanced performances are amply rewarding. The sound, on hybrid SACD, is well-balanced and clear.
We tend to take The Four Seasons for granted, but if you haven't fully engaged with its justly celebrated charms and startling originality recently, there is no better way to do so than with this delightful new set.