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.
Watching Vivaldi during a storm must have been like sitting across from Andy Warhol with a bowl of consommé. Thunder and lightning proved just as inspiring for the composer as soup cans for Warhol, and Vivaldi also offered very personal, highly stylized interpretations of his material. He doesn’t even name this concerto yet its swelling arpeggios and buffeting basses let the audience know exactly what’s going on [click below to play]:
The soloist builds its own heavy weather with one of Vivaldi’s favorite and most exciting devices, racing skyward while the bass line harps on a descending figure, intricate moving parts adding up to bravura display for the soloist and a visceral sensation for the listener. Yet Vivaldi resolves this scene with the soloist spiraling downward over a thinner texture [at 0:40], like a leaf or lost child carried away amidst all the wind and rain. Whatever it is, it’s soon back [at 1:05] for more sprinting and dancing in the middle of the storm. Violinist Federico Guglielmo’s performance lets that contrast between confidence and innocence sound like a spontaneous narrative rather than a reading from an exercise book.
With the right soloist, Vivaldi’s music blends pictorial and technical elements into an entirely unique experience. The second movement centers on a sequence of palpitating orchestral chords and a deceptively simple, teasing solo line, another Vivaldi favorite, yet this time the soloist turns mysterious and intriguing just in time for the movement to draw to a close, leaving the listener suddenly gasping for more:
Without any musicological evidence, it’s fun to imagine the composer/soloist/conductor signaling the ensemble to return to the “top” and indulging in further explorations on the same “changes.” Yet the big storm’s over so Vivaldi closes with a very happy and similarly idiosyncratic ending, with a jolly, foursquare ritornello and a warm, folksy melody from the soloist:
The minor key episode [at 0:55 and 1:25] and the soloist’s cadenza [busting up the party at 1:55] are entirely formal touches, completely expected yet still dear to the composer and just as exciting. Most of the musical and dramatic interest of this concerto and the others in this set comes from the soloist, sometimes just from him sawing away over a pulsing bass line. He’s come a long way from concerto grosso homage to his stylistic daddies.
Unlike Warhol, Vivaldi would return to this format and this topic throughout his career. Most of Vivaldi’s concertos would be based around a single soloist, and his instrumentals and operas would be filled with storms (Opus 8 offers both the “Storm at Sea” concerto and the well-known tempest that climaxes the “Summer” concerto). The differences, sometimes subtle, sometimes drastic, between all those violin solos and storms portray a musician who loved the sound a racing violin and thunderclaps. Who needs memoirs or TMZ?