Domenica con Vivaldi: It Gets Personal

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.

Violin Concerto in A Minor, Opus 3 Number 6
RV 356
Solo Instrument: Violin
Published as Part of: Opus 3, “L’Estro Armonico
Soloist: Elizabeth Wallfisch, violin
Ensemble: Tafelmusik, dir. Jeanne Lamon

Halfway through the composer’s first published collection of concertos, the listener (or player) gets quintessential Vivaldi. The three movement/fast-slow-fast form, racing soloist pitted against massed orchestra and dark minor key enlightened through Vivaldi’s harmonic prism are a long way from the modesty of Corelli, or the conventions of Vivaldi’s Venetian colleagues.

There’s also a leanness to this concerto, with phrases ending exactly where they should, allowing the soloist to emerge with dazzling yet never ostentatious displays. The violin picks up the opening material, spins it into its own theme, and as soon as the orchestra starts to follow in his footsteps (at 0:40 in this clip), launches into spiraling phrases to trip them up:

Vivaldi’s midpoint concerto is tightly packed and rhythmic, but also mysterious, maybe even sexy. Whatever the throbbing notes and plunging descents of the first movement’s main theme signify, they make an intriguing sonic Rorschach test: intrigue? Scandal? Tryst? A night out at the local dimly lit, morally diverse dancehall? Vivaldi not only gives us his signature compositional milieu, he offers some guilty pleasures.

Like any good priest, he also allows a confession. By the second movement (starting at 2:44), the consequences of the first movement have played out, resulting in a reflective, at times despondent lyricism from the soloist, who sings out over glowing, sustained strings. The continuo sits this one out, adding to the fragile atmosphere. This is wordless opera at its best, a lament worthy of Ariadne, Juliet, Madame Butterfly or Laura Wingfield, brought to us by a composer known as much for his theatrical works as his fiery violin in his lifetime.

Yet triumph and testicles rule in the end. The third and final movement (kicking in at 4:44) mirrors the energy of the first movement yet learns something from the pensive second. The momentum stops (at 6:13) when the soloist says so, whereas a tongue-in-cheek coda (winding down at 6:38) calls things to a close with mock exhaustion. Rhythmic, intense and deeply personal: welcome to Vivaldi’s Venice, or American pop circa 2012.

For some added fun, check out Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante playing up this concerto’s feisty character, sounding as though they’re recording from the back of a Vespa speeding alongside the canal:

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