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Viktoria Mullova, Vivaldi with a Baroque Bow

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A. Vivaldi, Five Violin Concertos (RV 187, 208, 227, 234, 580), Viktoria Mullova, Il Giardino Armonico, Giovanni Antonini, released September 13, 2005 (Onyx 4001)
We have read and heard lots of good things about Russian violinist Viktoria Mullova and were anxious to hear her new recording of five Vivaldi concerti that came out this fall. In spite of the sour grapes comments of Pinchas Zukerman, which had A. C. Douglas crowing earlier this month, the leading historically informed groups have provided excellent laboratories for young musicians to learn about the musical styles of different periods while playing off-the-beaten-path repertory they probably would not be exposed to otherwise. What old-fashioned reactionaries do not understand, many of the best young performers are flocking to, and Mullova is merely coming to it late to take up the challenge. Zukerman cannot have been listening to all that many historically informed performance groups if he arrived at the conclusion that they all sound bad live. My experiences with Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Les Arts Florissants, Musica Alta Ripa, REBEL Ensemble, Violons du Roy, and Opera Lafayette certainly contradict that statement.

So here we have Viktoria Mullova, who since 2000 has been on a sort of Baroque kick, applying an 18th-century bow to the gut strings on her 1723 "Jules Falk" Strad. She teams up with one of Italy's leading historically informed ensembles, Il Giardino Armonico, led by recorder player Giovanni Antonini. (They provided the instrumental part of the Vivaldi aria disc that won Cecilia Bartoli a Grammy in 2001.) Mullova appears to be heading more and more toward the truly baroqueux, the French mot juste for historically informed Baroque performance. Here is how Joanna Wyld puts it in her liner notes for this CD:
Mullova does not generally consult historical sources as a means of justifying her interpretation as 'authentic' but is as faithful as possible to the score in matters of ornamentation and phrasing. Though Mullova intends to research ornamentation in the future, it is worth emphasizing that all of the Baroque era's abundant performance styles could be drawn upon to support any given modern interpretation of this repertoire.
What Mullova needs is a musicological spirit guide, because the ornamentation is essential. She's ready, because she says that the switch to gut strings is "second nature now," as is tuning to A415, but the Baroque bow "alters the quality of sound produced more dramatically than anything else." Ornamentation would mean the complete package. Mullova had a little bit to say about why she went for Baroque in an article (Period Peace, April 2004) by Inge Kjemtrup for Strings:
Mullova says she was drawn to the period-instrument world by the "fantastic, vast repertoire" of early music and her admiration for certain authentic instrument ensembles. "What I really like about great Baroque groups is that they don't follow the rules very much," she says. "There's lots of fantasy, imagination in it. It's very exhilarating." Mullova was particularly impressed with Il Giardino Armonico, a period-instrument band based in Italy that's led by recorder player Giovanni Antonini, a "wonderful musician whom I respect enormously." She jumped at the chance to play with them two years ago and will be recording Vivaldi with them in the near future. But for a violinist schooled in the hard-driving Russian style, performing in the authentic style must require a complete shift in thinking, I suggest. Mullova agrees. "It's like playing a different instrument. I mean, my technique is completely different," she says. "I realized that all the things I learned about intonation when I was a child—like you have to always correct your intonation with the open strings—are completely irrelevant now, because there is no perfect intonation, it doesn't exist. It depends on the tonalities and the harmonies."
One of the high points of this recording is the B minor concerto for four violins, perhaps because Il Giardino Armonico and its three other violin soloists truly make Mullova part of them. This extraordinary piece also fascinated J. S. Bach, who made a famous transcription of it for four harpsichords (A minor, BWV 1065). All musicians know that the best way to understand a piece is to play it for yourself, and that was Bach's way of getting to the bottom of Vivaldi. The other high point is the final set of tracks, the E minor concerto (RV 277, "Il Favorito"), in which Mullova's facility of technique is put to the best use on the very difficult episodes, in spite of a few strained sounds because of the bow.

Some interesting flavors greet the ears in the first concerto on this disc, the "Grosso Mogul" (D major, RV 208), which is not about a wicked ski slope but a reference to the Grand Mughal in India. The second movement's violin solo has a cantillational quality to it in Mullova's hands. Bach worked his way through this concerto as well, altering it significantly as an organ concerto in C major, BWV 594. The agitated D major concerto (RV 234, "L'inquietudine") is truly a "restless" concerto, over so quickly (about six minutes) that you had better not close your ears for a moment. RV 187 rounds out this selection of some of the most technically demanding concerti that Vivaldi wrote for his own instrument.

Of course, some malicious tongue once quipped that Vivaldi wrote the same concerto 500 times, and you can listen to a lot of the Vivaldi concerti before hearing something that really makes you sit up and listen. At the same time, any of his concerti are unlikely to be anything less than pleasant listening. While I was listening to this CD in my office, a colleague heard it as she walked by and asked to borrow it to play as background music for a reception she was hosting. Mullova's playing is top-notch and the whole group makes an exciting, rhythmic, and beautifully recorded sound. It's definitely worth hearing, although $22 for such a short CD, about 55 minutes, is perhaps a little steep.


Anonymous said...

Charles -- I greatly enjoyed this review. Mullova has long been my favorite violinist (perhaps my favorite musician, period), so this comes from someone who's a bit biased, but her Vivaldi CD was one of the top recordings of 2005 for me. I think part of this has to do with the qualities of the performance here; she and Il Giardino Armonico are almost perfectly matched, and Mullova brings such vitality and joy to the music, not to mention some real fireworks and drama (I'm currently thinking of her entry in the first movement of the D major concerto). Also, in terms of technique, Mullova simply raises the bar for period-instrument performance, even if there are still traces of her modern training. There are many musicians in the H.I.P movement who could learn much from her skillful handling of these pieces (and her tone and touch are right on; as David Hurwitz wrote, there's none of the "scratch and scrape" you normally hear in period recordings).

And, on top of all that, the recorded sound is, as you note, beautiful. The engineers did a good job on this one.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks, Michael! Yes, the reason this is so interesting is that the Giardino Armonico players get to work with someone like Mullova with Russian virtuoso training, too.