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Four Hundred Seasons (Or: 392 Too Many)

available at Amazon
A.Vivaldi, Le quattro stagioni, Concerto Italiano, R. Alessandrini

available at Amazon
A.Vivaldi, Le quattro stagioni, G.Shaham / Orpheus

available at Amazon
A.Vivaldi, Le quattro stagioni, Il Giardino Armonico

available at Amazon
A.Vivaldi, Le quattro stagioni, T.Zehetmair / Camerata Bern
Berlin Classics

Gathering enthusiasm about the Four Seasons can be difficult for me. I have heard the work a few too many times to still enjoy it the same way I once did - and I expect I am not alone in this. Being overplayed and ripped out of context (Anti-Foot-odor spray commercials, the Weather Channel, and limitless other variations executed in generally dubious taste) doesn't help this work. But it is undoubtedly an essential building block of any classical music library; nor the worst way to start someone off with classical music. There are at least 150 complete recordings available ("complete" being relative: The "Four Seasons" is simply the first third, a famous subset of the 12 concerto op.8 cycle "Il Cimento dell'Armonia e dell'Inventione") - and choosing from them is either easy ('How can you do the Four Seasons wrong - it will always sound good, any will do') or extraordinarily difficult. (Who has ever heard - and survived to tell the tale - all these versions on a quest to find "the best"?). I have not heard more than three dozen and doubt that I could have, barring permanent damage to my sanity. Still, I notice with an odd mix of pride, shame, and surprise, that I can count over a dozen versions on my shelf alone.

There really are only two copies that have not gathered dust. Conveniently they are of the two categories into which I would very roughly arrange the different interpretations: "Lush/Romantic/Beautiful" and "Lean/Historically Informed/Exciting". I am trying not to let bias creep into these descriptions, although I am solidly in the camp that prefers the latter approach. But that isn't for everyone, and someone who wishes to delve into thick and comforting wafts of string sound would be ill advised following my recommendation if it were (as it is) a 'period performance'.

In the more 'old fashioned' or 'modern instrument' category - where soloist and string section strive for absolute and maximum beauty - Gil Shaham and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra come out on top. (Ironically, that is the interpretation that the Weather Channel used, back in the days.) Neither too thick in texture nor romantically saturated, this is a swift account full of beauty and delicacy, attention to detail, with plenty spontaneity, virtuosity and, for better or worse, no surprises.

Still, whether it be smile-count, or excitement, or making the work sound like a new discovery of sublime music, or the multitude of colors, or musical storytelling: Rinaldo Alessandrini with Concerto Italiano bags them all. The recording stands apart, awe- and fun inspiring, inventive and lively. It's a gem that allows all the Vivaldi-jaded who have long suffered loveless or conventional renditions to the point of giving up on the composer, entirely to regain an appreciation for the red priest. Hearing it even once could turn many such a music lover into a born-again Vivaldian. And those who never ceased to like the Four Seasons would not be disappointed, either - except, perhaps, when they return to what had hitherto been their favorite version which might now seem bland, thoughtlessly pretty, or dull. No other group conjures the pictures that the sonnets spell out so vividly; no one dares so much nor so successfully. The group's playing doesn't serve beauty, but the music. There are frightful moments, moments that may, at first, not even sound particularly pretty. But it's all part of a well thought-out whole and its effect on the listener is undeniable. There really isn't any way to experience it but to listen to it yourself. If I were the record company, I'd offer a be-completely-amazed-or-get-your-money-back guarantee. I'm not, but I can urge you to treat yourself to something that makes even the most overplayed composer be special again...

Read the full review on WETA's blog.

[Edit: The WETA column is no longer extant. This "Library Building" essay will eventually be reconstructed and posted on (or the highest bidder).]


Anne and Kirk said...

While on the Amalfi Coast last month, our room with a beautiful view of the coast also happened to be several floors above the beachside disco floor. At first it was funny that the music was so loud - the DJ sounded like he was calling the moves for the line dances right on our balcony when we walked into the room at night. Believe me, it quickly became UN funny - it was midnight, after all! We turned the TV on to the hotel welcome channel which played just the most hectic portion of Vivaldi's Summer over and over.
Earplugs in, we tried to go to sleep with a booming bass from below and sawing strings from the TV - making me want to NEVER hear Summer again!

jfl said...

A nightmare, indeed. Put off the Vivaldi for half a year. The re-approach with caution. :-)

Roni said...

Completely agree with you on the Gil Shaham choice. One of the best violinists out there today. No wonder he chose the excellent Orpheus to make this recording with.

Anonymous said...

In paragraph three, do you really mean to imply that a hip approach does NOT "strive for absolute and maximum beauty"? I think you might have it backwards...

jfl said...

"In paragraph three, do you really mean to imply that a HIP approach does NOT 'strive for absolute and maximum beauty'?"

Absolutely - That's what I mean. Not only to imply but empathetically state.