Tag Archives: Jonathan Freeman-Attwood

Domenica con Vivaldi: Meet Tony V, the 18th Century’s Hottest Record Producer

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 No. 12 in G Major
RV 298
Solo Instrument: Violin
Published as Part of: Opus 4, “La Stravaganza
Soloist: Rachel Podger
Ensemble: Arte dei Suonatori

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.

What DO Vivaldi and Timbaland Have in Common? (Photo courtesy of Rolling Stone)

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.

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Domenica con Vivaldi: The Glowering Concerto

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 10 in C Minor
RV 196
Solo Instrument: Violin
Published as Part of: Opus 4, “La Stravaganza
Soloist: Unknown
Ensemble: Unknown (but definitely not “historically informed.”)

Few composers knew how to milk a minor key for such driving, at times downright sensual effects as Vivaldi, but this concerto stalks much more serious territory.  It begins so bluntly, so severely, that even the major harmonies that follow almost immediately after the introduction [about eight seconds into the following clip] fail to really lighten the mood or offer any contrast:

Violin solos are decorous but hew closely to the theme.  There’s a spontaneity and seamlessness  to those solos which, along with the storming main theme, keeps things brooding.  Vivaldi marks the first movement “Spiritoso,” which unlike “Allegro, Andante” or “Presto” doesn’t just indicate a tempo but a way to approach the music.  Whatever dark ideas are at play are meant to simply never let up.

Without the typical big finish or even a simple cadence, the soloist and the first movement just stop, mid phrase, and the central movement materializes with three notes from the strings and patches of  light between the shadows:

Those chiaroscuro progressions in turn become a reflecting pool for the soloist, who hangs some disturbing suspensions over even the sunnier harmonies [for example at 0:47 and 0:51 in the above clip].

The third movement proceeds with an inevitability and leanness which Jonathan Freeman-Attwood explained in terms of Vivaldi’s “economy of means.”  That concision reinforces both the underlying tension and Vivaldi’s moody choice of key.  Really elegant emotional blackmail here:

The contrast between the full orchestra and the lone soloist wasn’t a Vivaldian innovation, and there’s the usual ritornello form, modulations, jogging rhythm and violinistic displays we expect of Vivaldi, but the soloist’s questioning, at times desperate replies speak to a deeply personal integration between the composer’s instrumental technique and his operatic language.  Yet there’s no deus ex machina happy ending like in the stage works.  There is a concluding cadence but no sense of resolution; things just seem to stop, like an unpleasant conversation, or a very subtle attack.

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Domenica con Vivaldi: The Fine Cliché of Art

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 3 in G Major
RV 301
Solo Instrument: Violin
Published as Part of: Opus 4, “La Stravaganza
Soloist: Rachel Podger
Ensemble: Arte dei Suonatori

It’s hard to argue with Jonathan Freeman-Attwood’s assessment of the third concerto in Vivaldi’s Opus 4. Cataloging the expressiveness and intricacies of each of the other twelve concertos in his liner notes to Rachel Podger and Arte de Suonatori’s recording, he describes RV301 as bit of a letdown:

A more conservative approach lies at the heart of the stock arpeggios and unisons of Concerto no. 3 in G major, where the violin solos, harmless affairs though they be, rely too heavily on cliché…There can be no doubt that both a bland ritornello and an uninflected harmonic palette can make Vivaldi a dull boy.

So what’s a listener left to do with all those “stock” figures set to a static chord progression?  With the right performers, enjoy their sheer energy, and maybe chuckle at the thought of Vivaldi phoning his commission in with something fun, zippy and guaranteed not to make it into any treatises on composition:

Harmonically, those violins thumping away behind the soloist aren’t doing anything special. They’re just big booming Baroque power chords, ultimately forgettable but for the moment as catchy as a good Anvil Chorus. As for those “bland” ritornellos, the soloist herself isn’t as harsh in her description:

Vivaldi also uses very simple tools by, for instance, making the tune leap across the two violin parts: there is an ascending triadic figure which goes to-and-fro between the fiddles [she’s referring to the section at 1:59 in this clip] as a variation on a similar tune heard earlier in a single part within the orchestra.

Sometimes it’s just about a good “tune.”

The “harmless” violin solos may be intended to simply entertain rather than to challenge. Violinists frequently toss out effects that sound tricky but are easy to play. If the dizzying patterns of this concerto [check out the sequence at 1:10!] fall upon the soloist’s fingers and the audience’s ears easily, according to Professor Freeman-Attwood there’s at least eleven (maybe ten) other concertos in this set offering more sophisticated material.

He does cite the second movement [starting at 2:47] as another example of Vivaldi’s ability to “disarm the critic with slow movements of expressive beauty.” The third movement [at 5:18], leaping along innocently like a grasshopper in the field before getting stepped on by a few sterner harmonic clashes, isn’t mentioned. That’s actually quite unfortunate. It’s important to know understand all of the “clichés” and conventions in a work of art: that way you can forget about them and listen to some good music.

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