VIVALDI The Four Seasons
I’m constantly amazed at how the fount of fresh spins on The Four Seasons never appears to dry up, and this latest contribution from Concerto Köln is no exception. Their own particular modus operandi has been not to ‘emulate historical performance practice down to the last detail, but rather to emphasise the freedoms that are embedded in the score’; and while perhaps this doesn’t sound like the most revolutionary of Op 8 mission statements – and indeed the first thing to hit your ears is still simply the crisp, sprightly sort of reading you’d expect from any top period band – their deviations from the norm do pack a substantial punch.
This is even true when the deviation is actually a move towards greater subtlety, such as in Spring’s third movement where, instead of the usual hard lean on the first and sixth beats of the bar, Concerto Köln apply only the gentlest pressure. This small action, or lack of action, has the surprisingly profound effect of producing far longer, more flowing musical lines of thought than we’re used to hearing here.
The soloist’s line is where many of the more obviously daring freedoms are to be found. Take Autumn’s opening Allegro where, as the imagined wine takes effect, Sato’s violin gradually slips, slides, scratches and misses more of its intonational targets, although all with such deft airiness that it tickles rather than jars.
Less convincing in my book is the ensemble’s theory that Vivaldi intended the slow movements as they appear on the page to be merely melodic skeletons, or starting points, to be rhapsodised upon ad libitum by the soloist. With Spring this makes at least for an interestingly novel musical ride. However, with Winter, whose original melody has been all but completely masked, this approach only serves to illustrate the extent to which the movement’s mood of purity and calm absolutely hangs on its very melodic simplicity.
Even so, this is a classy offering, particularly when you also factor in recording engineer Jurgen Reis’s ‘Against Loudness Mania’ approach to mixing and mastering: real spatial representation of the sound sources, no compressors, only minimal spot microphones with very low levels, all resulting in a natural yet vibrantly bristling sound quality entirely free from extraneous performer sound effects. And no one can argue with that.