Domenica con Vivaldi: A Symphonic Concerto

Antonio Vivaldi (March 4, 1678-July 28, 1741) composed over five hundred concertos, yet Stravinsky joked that Vivaldi actually wrote the same concerto five hundred times. Many of the Venetian composer/violinist’s concertos display similar traits, making them instantly recognizable as the work of the same artist. Yet how each performer (and listener) approaches Vivaldi’s concertos makes all the difference. “Sundays with Vivaldi” will take Il Prete Rosso’s concertos one at a time, and see whether each of these things is in fact like the others.

Opus 3, L’Estro Armonico: Concerto #5 in D Minor for Two Violins and Cello
RV 565
Solo Instruments: Two Violins and Cello

Haydn “invented” the symphony, Beethoven expanded it and Bruckner, Brahms and other German Romantics developed the symphony to epic heights.  Now the symphony is to classical music what the novel is to literature, yet along the way the concept of “brevity” became outmoded, even simplistic.  Vivaldi’s miniature symphony within a concise three movement concerto proves otherwise.  In fairness, Vivaldi “cheats” by spinning three movements out of the first:

 The ricocheting solo violins blur the beat into several dimensions.  It’s ecstatically unclear who’s coming and who’s going, until the cello bursts in to lay down the law with its own pyrotechnic display.  The tight, stabbing spiccato section that follows provides more than just transition; it actually tightens the suspense by making the beat absolutely clear in defiance of the opening.  Vivaldi’s rhythmic displacement ends with a marching fugue, seamlessly integrating the soloists and demonstrating his knack for “hard” compositional theory.

The second movement (or is the fourth?) builds from a sighing orchestral passage, lamenting or lustful depending on the listener’s persuasion, into a long-breathed, floating rhapsody by the first violin soloist over anxious, jerky violins.  The opening material returns with the power and insight of a Greek chorus, and it’s easy to anticipate hearing these sounds in one of Vivaldi’s operas or sacred works.

The final movement ends the concerto at war with itself, the solo violins occasionally partnering over cello accompaniment (another nod to another form, that of the multi-soloist concerto grosso), then chiding one another in close imitation.  Midway through, the orchestra screams its way into the fray, and the whole ensemble ends on a charging phrase, resigned to conflict.  With the right interpretation, RV565 assumes formal and narrative proportions associated with much longer works.  Say something in a thousand works and get an epic, or say it in a dozen and have your audience pining for more.

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