There's More to Vivaldi Than `Four Seasons': A Guide to His Best on CD
BOSTON — A DECADE ago, audiophiles rarely encountered the music of an obscure Baroque composer by the name of Johann Pachelbel. Then, quite suddenly, recording after recording was released of Pachelbel's Canon in D. This orchestral version of an organ piece by the little-known 17th-century German composer became a hit. Almost at once a search began for other ``Great Hits of 1700.'' As a result, we now have a long list of recordings of lovely adagios and airs by various Baroque composers. But now, recording the golden oldies of the Baroque has faded from fashion. And this seems a bit of a shame, given the treasury of accessible and accomplished 17th-century music that is still largely unknown. Take, for example, the compositions of Antonio Vivaldi, who is familiar to many listeners entirely on the basis of the first four concertos, called ``The Four Seasons,'' of his elaborate 12-part Opus 8.
``The Four Seasons'' is marvelous music, especially in the compact disc version by Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert (DGG Archiv Produktion - 400-045-2), but why stop with just the first four pieces of Opus 8? Why not look into the equally brilliant numbers 5 through 12 of this same opus which, in its entirety, is known as ``Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione,'' or ``The Contest of Harmony and Invention''? The recording I most admire of this exceptional music is available only by mail from Musical Heritage Society (1710 Highway 35, Ocean, NJ, 07712): an elegant reading of Op. 8, Nos. 5-12 (MHS-11085Z) by the English Concert on period instruments, conducted from the harpsichord by Mr. Pinnock.
Once we open the musical vaults of Antonio Vivaldi, the options are almost unlimited. He composed 44 operas, 40 cantatas, more than 40 concertos for strings in four parts, dozens of sonatas and symphonies, and 60-odd sacred works.
For 36 years he was the musical director at the Ospedale della Pieta, an orphanage for young girls, many of whom possessed such exquisite musical talents that they constituted one of the best orchestras in Italy and the most eminent cultural attraction of Venice. Finding himself at the head of such a rich musical world, Vivaldi eagerly undertook compositional experiments of every possible type, using combinations of tone color unknown to composers at the beginning of the 18th century. More significant, perhaps, than his virtuosic scoring and innovative evolution of forms and his unorthodox use of intruments was the unique emotional force of his works.
It is difficult today to comprehend that the passion and elegant simplicity of Vivaldi's music was not well received during his lifetime. His beloved city of Venice neglected him, enchanted instead by other passing musical fashions. In the north of Europe, Vivaldi had not yet been fully discovered, although his last trip took him to Vienna, where he died in poverty in 1741. Soon his music entirely vanished from the concert stage.
WE owe the survival of Vivaldi to one of his contemporaries, Johann Sebastian Bach, who discovered his works and was so entranced by them that he transcribed 10 Vivaldi concertos for keyboard instruments.
The motive behind these transcriptions was described by an 18th-century writer who was friendly with the Bach's sons. Bach, he wrote, ``became aware at a very early stage that perpetual keyboard acrobatics would never make a complete musician of him, and that he should learn to arrange his ideas in order, through sequence and differentiation. ... The Vivaldi concertos were to serve as his guide. He listened to them often, with great attention, and finally conceived the idea of transcribing them for his own keyboard. It was in this way that he learned the logic of musical ideas, their sequence, the correct succession for modulations, and many other things.''
Thanks to Bach's transcriptions, then, the name of Vivaldi aroused the curiosity of researchers at the beginning of this century. It is only since then that a large-scale revival of his music has taken place.
In the second decade of the 18th century, Vivaldi's interest turned to church music, and none of his compositions is more touching, appealing, and elegant than his deeply religious ``Stabat Mater'' and ``Nisi Dominus.''
The soulful ``Stabat Mater'' has some of the composer's most clearly emotional writing; while the richly contrasted moods of the ``Nisi Dominus'' evoke from Vivaldi an operatic mood that demands considerable vocal virtuosity. It is difficult to comprehend that this music was entirely forgotten within 50 years of the composer's death. Yet the ``Stabat Mater'' was virtually unperformed from the late 18th century until Sept. 20, 1939, when a concert in Siena marked the beginnings of the current renaissance of Vivaldi's music.
For those who do not know Vivaldi's ``Stabat Mater'' and ``Nisi Dominus,'' a rare and wonderful experience is waiting. Both pieces were composed for alto voice, but contraltos and mezzo sopranos have largely taken over its performance. For instance, the performances by contralto Livia Budai and mezzo Klara Takacs are available on the low-priced White Label compact disc produced by Hungaroton (HRC 074). Ms. Budai provides a particularly fine interpretation of the ``Stabat Mater,'' accompanied by the Liszt Ferenc Chamber Orchestra of Budapest, which is conducted by Frigyes Sandor. For me, however, this excellent contralto version is outranked by the recording of counter-tenor James Bowman, with Christopher Hogwood conducting the Academy of Ancient Music (L'Oiseau-Lyre CD 414-329-2).
PHILIPS CLASSICS provides two perfect encores for those who are beguiled by these Vivaldi vocal compostitions. Two CDs have been remastered from a fine collection, called ``Sacred Choral Music.'' Vol. 1 (Phillips CD 420-648-2) features, among other works, the marvelous ``Gloria.'' Vol. II (Philips CD 420-649-2) includes the equally fine ``Magnificat.'' A pioneer in the revival of Vivaldi's vocal music, Vittorio Negri, conducts the English Chamber Orchestra and the John Alldis Choir in these two superb compact discs.
Even less known than the sacred vocal music are Vivaldi's splendidly tuneful and dramatic operas and oratorios. A recent remastering of a Hungaroton release of ``Juditha Triumphans'' is an extraordinary musical experience. The recording by Ferenc Szekeres and the Hungarian State Orchestra and Budapest Madrigal Choir is musically refined and highly spirited. The five soloists give handsome performances of this opus of 1716, which was originally sung at the Ospendale della Pieta. Though operatic in scope, it is called ``a sacred military oratorio in two parts'' with a libretto by Jacopo Cassetti based on the tale of Judith from the Apocrypha.
An ideal finale for an evening with Antonio Vivaldi is his collection of 12 concertos from Opus 3, entitled ``L'Estro Armonico.'' In this brillantly constructed series of concertos for one, two, three, and four violins, Vivaldi touched upon the ultimate spirit of the late Baroque: an unheard-of freedom of expression that culminates the musical forms of the past and leads to the strong individuality implied by the exaltation of solo virtuosity in the concerto. It would be difficult to find a recording that better captures these monumental works than the thoroughly Baroque interpretations on original instruments by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music (L'Oiseau-Lyre 4145544-2 OH2).