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.
After three weeks of clouds and rain here in Boston, Vivaldi’s concerto seems appropriate, and remains magnetic even though it offers no reprieve from grey skies. Set to an especially low minor key, the first movement settles upon a dismal state of affairs even as its angular three-note motif never settles down musically [just click the arrow to listen]:
Quicksilver solo exclamations seem dutiful in the midst of all that gloom, not like an actor on stage but perhaps one at Vivaldi’s church, one of his concerts or maybe at the office or the dinner table: someone going through the motions even as they’re grappling with some unnerving realization inside of them. Spikier harmonic twists [for example at 0:52 in the above clip] add more depth to the story. The mood seems to lighten during a series of orchestral modulations and virtuosic flights [starting at about one minute in], but just as quickly returns back to square one. These same sentiments slow down to a crawl for the second movement. The soloist meanders down some unexpected curves in the line, until a brief orchestral suggestion of sunshine [at 1:23 below] and more disembodied wandering:
At the wrong tempo Vivaldi’s third movement adds nothing to the story: too fast and it feels tacked on, too slow and it feels melodramatic and shallow. It’s “right” when a listener can breathe the exhausted, half-hearted anger that usually accompanies the feigned resignation of the first two movements:
A driving motif, the soloist’s wide intervals bridging to a mincing upper-register display over needling accompaniment, followed by plunges into the lower register and more chromatic brooding say it all. A bad mood isn’t pleasant but it sure can be beautiful.