Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico was printed in Amsterdam in 1711 and was the composer’s first collection of published concertos. Later sets reflect developments and refinements in his music, but none contains the sheer variety on display in L’estro armonico. Its concertos for one, two and four violins, arranged in four symmetrical groups, and with a cello obbligato in five of them, quickly made their mark internationally, Bach transcribing six of the 12 pieces variously for solo organ, harpsichord and harpsichords with strings.
Gramophone Database has seldom been without a decent recording of these ceaselessly fascinating concertos, though none begins to approach this new version in respect of fantasy and exuberance. Fabio Biondi and his Italian ensemble, Europa Galante, have already given us three lively programmes of Vivaldi’s concertos on Opus 111 (9/91, 2/94 and – now deleted – 6/94). Since then, I have found their releases variable, but this new two-CD issue has restored my faith in their ability to bring something entirely fresh and vital to oft-performed repertoire, illuminating well-trodden paths with affective articulation and eloquently voiced inflexions. Not all of their extravagant, Mediterranean gestures, perhaps, will find favour with readers; indeed, some of Biondi’s own embellishments strike me as a little inapposite, though these bothered me less than the sour tuning resulting from certain shifts and trills. Conspicuous through these are, however, they did little to spoil my enjoyment of the playing as a whole. Tempos are well chosen, by and large, and ensemble is clear-textured and evenly balanced. The continuo group, which includes harpsichord, organ, archlute and baroque guitar, makes an important contribution to the overall success of the venture and I derived more pleasure, perhaps, from this aspect of the performance than any other. As for pitch, and paying heed to the most recent informed opinion, we are back to where we started; that is to say, all is played at A=440, today’s concert pitch and the pitch adopted by groups such as the Virtuosi di Roma and I Musici, all those decades ago.
Listening to these performances, I once again felt some of the thrill and excitement that affected me on hearing this music for the very first time, in the mid-1950s. It’s wonderful stuff, rejuvenating and, on many levels, immensely satisfying.'