It’s not often worth devoting many words of a CD review to the contents of the CD’s booklet. However, what the Baroque violinist and musicologist Mark Seow has come up with for Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque’s ‘Grandissima Gravita’ is nothing short of genius: a theatre script, the action of which sees the four violinist-composer stars of the album – Antonio Vivaldi, Giuseppe Tartini, Francesco Maria Veracini and Johann Georg Pisendel – reclining tipsily on divans in heaven (yes, really) for their annual wine-fuelled reunion. Seow’s imagined pile of alcohol-fogged reminiscences covers all bases, from their admiration for Corelli’s famous Op 5 collection and its historical-musical significance to their backgrounds and the interlinking of their own careers; a reminder, for instance, that Tartini discovered the violin while hiding in a monastery to which he had fled after his controversial secret marriage was discovered, and then how he left the monastery for Venice and heard Veracini’s tone and smooth bowing, which inspired him to dedicate his own career to bow technique. Also included are attitudes towards their contemporaries such as JS Bach, scandalous gossip (the scurrilous story of how a practical joke from Pisendel was the reason behind Veracini’s limp for instance, which the heavenly Veracini refutes as the gossip of enemies), and even how the mid-18th-century European obsession with alchemy found musical embodiment in the fugue, plus in musical devices such as the one that begins the album’s programme-opener: Vivaldi’s Sonata for violin and continuo in A major from Op 2, where the music ‘spirals and blossoms out of a single chord’.
The performances themselves are as stunning as the notes are imaginative, all four musicians both completely under the music’s skin and under each other’s, and playing as a smoothly dovetailed unit. Podger herself is exquisite; fluid, lilting and multi-shaded, with gorgeous filigree ornamentations. Her fellow Brecon Baroque members are equally faultless as sympathetic chamber partners, helped by engineering (from St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead) that balances them slightly behind, while equally drawing our ears towards qualities such as McGillivray’s sensitive cello duetting, the plucked colour of Caminiti’s lute and guitar, and Świątkiewicz's nimbly delicate harpsichord support.
There’s a sweet little encore too, in the form of Vivaldi’s Adagio in E flat. This links back to the C minor Sonata by Pisendel, for whom Vivaldi wrote this piece: Seow’s heavenly Pisendel tells Vivaldi that he couldn’t have written the sonata’s third movement Affetuoso ‘without your generous sound world in mind’.
Programmed and presented with flair, and faultlessly performed, this is a listening experience of unbridled pleasure. An exceptional album.