VIVALDI The Four Seasons JIRÁNEK Violin Concerto
It’s a funny thing that, while we may bang on about how difficult it is to release a really distinctive new Vivaldi Four Seasons recording, everyone appears to manage it pretty well. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that The Four Seasons has become the perfect vehicle for musicians to express their individuality. Take Adrian Chandler’s beautiful recording with La Serenissima (Avie, 10/15), at once full of dramatic spice, delicacy and nuance, or Fabio Biondi’s warm, fluid recordings with Europa Galante (Naïve, 4/92, or Virgin/Erato, 11/01).
Gunar Letzbor and Ars Antiqua Austria have certainly brought a distinctive new take on the concertos here, beginning with considerably slower tempos than we’re used to from period bands, and particularly pronounced dynamic contrasts. You’ll also notice a prominent organ within the continuo. Tone-wise they’ve really shaken things up too, with a rough, scratching attack their dominant modus operandi; listen to the viola’s unusually idiomatic Spring dog barks for instance, or the violins in Summer’s first movement. Then there’s their forte sound, which features a good deal of percussive twanging and slapping. The result is a sound that packs far more of a punch volume-wise than one would usually expect of such one-to-a-part forces, but I can’t say I actually enjoyed the overall ride.
Equally, Letzbor himself is passionate but also often rather scrappy of attack, even accounting for the deliberately sackcloth signature sound, and while his decision to initially go chromatically downwards on those high B trills of his first Spring entry stands out for originality, it doesn’t sound very nice. Or, indeed, like happy birdsong, and ultimately this is a programmatic work. It’s very possible that all this might make for an exciting live performance, but on the stereo I’m afraid it is more grating than gratifying.