Domenica con Vivaldi: Concerto for Smartass

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.

Concerto Number 5 in A Major
RV 347
Solo Instrument: Violin
Published as Part of: Opus 4, “La Stravaganza
Soloist: Simon Standage
Ensemble: The English Concert, dir. Trevor Pinnock

This concerto is all about messing with expectations.  It starts with a very neat, very symmetrical pattern (a major second followed by a descending arpeggio, two intervals that could just as easily signal the end of a piece), which sets up both the key of the piece and a sense of balance.  This is a fun but very reserved party, probably for a modest Venetian aristocrat, or a fundraiser for the DC crowd:

Things get a little more unhinged after the orchestra repeats and modulates those intervals two times.  Then, as if he’s deliberately mocking the sing-song safety of his opening material, Vivaldi harps on a major second [at 0:06] as if stuttering or simply saying “nyah-nyah!”  The key is already stuck in the listener’s head but the mood is fit to be broken, so Vivaldi’s signature divided strings, elegant and rhythmic as always, chop things up [at 0:15 and 0:24] before the soloist barges in.

The soloist’s whirling entry puts that reserved introduction in the rear-view, and he digs in with some tart double-stopping on a wide ascending interval for further tension [at 0:36].  Slightly later, sustained double-stopping lets the bass carry thing forward for a propulsive Baroque breakdown [get down at 0:57].  Formally, it’s no great feat.  Philosophically, a solo for bass line and audience booty in a concerto is a pretty bold move.  After all that party-crashing Vivaldi modulates to a minor key [at 2:09] like a good lil’ composer, leaving the listener to ask, “why bow to convention now?”

The second movement [starting at 3:31]‘s formal subterfuge is much more subtle, as well as very personal.  Repeated notes in the strings hint at a dark, minor key (and a musical stamp Vivaldi himself used a few times), yet the soloist pulls the musical line out from under them to fiddle its own pastoral song.  The opening phrase is square and quaint, and the solo relies on plenty of repeated phrases.  Despite some fluttery runs and subtle dissonances, the delicate mood is a far cry from the grand, theatrical soliloquies Vivaldi usually includes in his central movements.  He even forgoes his usual orchestral coda to allow the soloist the last hushed word.

Just as the rest of the party seems to loosen up with a bursting ritornello for the third and final movement [starting at 5:45], our gatecrasher turns to some deliberately “out-there” harmonic explorations far removed from anything the orchestra has to say.  Aloof, disembodied statements pop up when the accompaniment drops out or plays stop-time [for example at 6:55, 7:21 or 8:25], and at one point [7:44] the soloist seems poised to keep soaring chromatically for ever-more profound statements, before deciding to say “gotcha'” and scattering the line into a thousand pieces.  If this were a play or a novel, it would seem lazy or inconsistent.  In Vivaldi’s case, musical dickery is amusing, perhaps ingenious.

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