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.
Too many reviews to fit one hyperlink advise that entire collections of Vivaldi’s music are not meant to be listened to in one sitting. Opus 4, comprised of twelve concertos, all for solo violin, mostly in three movements, predictably alternating a fast, a slow and another fast movement, with Vivaldi’s distinct style in every chord change and rhythmic turn, seems to strengthen those critics’ suggestions into impenetrable wisdom.
Even Vivaldi’s original patrons, increased leisure time and attention spans aside, wouldn’t have sat through an entire set of their favorite virtuoso violinist/opera impresario/composer’s works all at once. Yet hearing Vivaldi’s collections as albums (ones that might take a few evenings to finish) helps clarify the blur that Vivaldi’s six hundred or so very similar concertos can meld into.
Take Opus 4 a part one concerto at a time for example, and the individual works seem like twelve tracks on an LP rather than thirty plus pieces in a set. There’s the sheer joy of the first concerto, the calculated drama of the second, the grandstanding fourth, the “gotcha!” convention-thumbing of the fifth, the moody yet sexy sixth, the laidback seventh, the boundary-pushing eighth, gloomy tenth and seesawing eleventh. Even the third and ninth concertos are an invitation for a performer to make those works their own, to do better and find the individual fire waiting inside their stock figures.
As for the twelfth and final concerto, that’s the roof-raising sendoff:
The composer’s good-natured smirk as well as his usual style and stylishness are apparent from the first movement: the biting little two note phrase and the soloist entering on wide octaves as though drunk and late for its own going away party, then getting down to business with microscopic intervallic running and humorous nosedives in the minor key section [about 1:33 in the above clip].
Unlike many of Vivaldi’s slow central movements, where he simply lets the soloist sing over just continuo or the barest of strings, here he works out every detail, integrating the orchestra seamlessly even as the soloist sculpts the airy textures underneath its lead. The effect is beautifully transparent, as the melodic content is more implied than stated. Even showier, more rapid passages from the soloist just add to the atmosphere. When the orchestra parts for a bit of last minute drama [1:44 in the following clip], the effect is cathartic rather than tacked on:
Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, in his excellent liner notes to Rachel Podger and Arte dei Suonatori’s recording of Opus 4, provides the best description of the second movement, as “a work of shimmering perfection over which Vivaldi took considerable trouble, judging from the detailed perfection in all the parts of this exquisite ground bass.”
The third and final movement returns to the tightrope range jumping of the opening movement, this time without a hint of parody. This is serious, show-stopping display, the orchestra amping the energy up between and behind the solos:
Whether it was Vivaldi or his publisher’s choice to include this concerto last, its overwhelming spirit and attention to detail make it the perfect finale. As for Opus 4 in its entirety, if twelve tracks on a digital download featuring vocals and a drum machine had this much variety, some producer might be looking at a Grammy nomination.