VIVALDI Complete Concertos and Sinfonias for Strings and Basso continuo
In 1739 a Frenchman, Charles de Brosses, wrote from Venice: ‘Here they have a form of music that we know in France not at all, and I am convinced that it would be particularly well suited to the Bourbonne gardens. It consists of the grand Concerti in which there is no principal violin.’
These soloist-free concerti ripieni and sinfonias were clearly useful to Vivaldi, too, perhaps for those occasions when he didn’t have a decent soloist to hand, meaning that 40 of them have come down to us in his handwritten scores, largely composed between 1720 and 1741, with a further 12 in a collection in Paris. Structurally, all share the solo concerto’s three-movement fast-slow-fast structure, with the concertos’ three being more evenly weighted than those of the sinfonias, which tend to have a longer first movement. The concertos’ outer movements also tend to be more bristling with contrapuntal complexities than their sinfonia counterparts, which by contrast tend to have their first and second violins playing in unison. Still, the writing for those unison violins is virtuoso, and the textures full, in recognition of the opera symphony from which they are derived. In the context of this consistency, it’s hard to know whether one should be impressed at this dishing-up of 40 concertos and 11 sinfonias in one serving or just a little frightened.
L’Archicembalo perform on historical instruments in a line-up of three violins, viola, cello, violone and harpsichord, and a broad description of their sound would be that it’s as energetic, exuberant and rhythmic as you’d expect from Vivaldi performances, with a polish and attack that places it somewhere in the middle of the Vivaldi timbral punch-o-meter. They are also, as the presence of the violone perhaps hints, big on their bass; for some, such as myself, that’s great fun – get a load of the bass rumble below the dancing final Minuet of RV136 in F, for instance, or the more subtle thunder underneath the swirling violins of the final Allegro of RV150 in G (although rather less subtle in the few flourishes they do get!) – but others might prefer a bit less welly down there. As for the tempos, think brisk but not breakneck.
Moving on to details, take the courtly delicacy of the Andante of the B flat major Concerto, RV163, where the bass steps well back in honour of the trebles, and harpsichordist Daniela Demicheli provides subtly shaped legato momentum underneath the violins’ beautifully soft delivery of their lines’ huge large leaps. Or, with the final Allegro of the A major, RV159, the mutual chamber understanding with which the solo duetting violins weave their triple-time dance around each other.
Listen, though, to what Andrew Parrott and the Taverner Players do with the G major Concerto, RV151 (EMI/Erato, 12/91), and the answer is something a little more fleet-footed and elegant, at least to my ears. Parrott and company then follow RV151 with the palette-cleansing textures of the Concerto for Multiple Instruments, RV577, whose recorders and oboes instantly refresh the ears; and ultimately I think this gets to the nub of the problem with this well-played, ambitious set: namely that it’s hard to keep hooking the ear over this number of strings-only Vivaldi works. In fact, Adrian Chandler and La Serenissima’s own rhythmically punchy reading of RV151 (Avie, 5/17) adds woodwind anyway, while with Pinnock there are oboes and a theorbo in the mix, to which no doubt Vivaldi himself wouldn’t have been averse.
Perhaps this matters little in these days when playlisting is so much the norm. Only with Vivaldi in particular, with his relatively consistent language, I do think some more imaginative programming also needs to come in if a recording is genuinely to sing; and all the more so when it’s this much of this particular repertoire.