Tag Archives: La Stravaganza

Domenica con Vivaldi: Even What Goes Rocketing All the Way Up…

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. 11 in D Major
RV 204
Solo Instrument: Violin
Published as Part of: Opus 4, “La Stravaganza
Soloist: Simon Standage (with Micaela Comberti, RIP, on second violin)
Ensemble: The English Concert, dir. Trevor Pinnock

This concerto could land a plane on a runway during a blackout:

Two soloists (in a collection of concertos for single soloist) are off to the races from the start, and the comparatively reserved, symmetrical ritornello pulls things back just to let them rocket further and faster every time.  It’s a hell of a ride, but the central movement steals the show (no mean task, starting at 2:50).  The soloist glides over a simple accompaniment as though stepping from one cloud to the next, with an arching reflection over a soft, pulsating bass line and rippling chords.  It’s a characteristically Vivaldian moment that just “works” regardless of soloist, instrumentation or interpretation.  The music is that clear, that poignant.

Vivaldi does his best to finish strong, but the third and final movement (starting at 4:38) feels like a convention rather than a conclusion.  Its bouncy theme is fun, but the closing Allegro Assai lacks the pathos of the previous movement and the freewheeling thematic development of the first.  It’s a good old-fashioned ride into the sunset after the actual story has been told.  Two out of three ain’t bad, and in this case it would have been enough.

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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: Vivaldi, Meet James Joyce…No?

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 9 in F Major
RV 284
Solo Instrument: A Violin or Two
Published as Part of: Opus 4, “La Stravaganza
Soloist: Fabio Biondi
Ensemble: Europa Galante, dir. Biondi

Yesterday was Bloomsday, the annual celebration of James Joyce, his seminal novel Ulysses and the exploits of its protagonist Leo Bloom in Dublin on June 16, 1904.  Joyce’s dense prose and deluge of consciousness, filled with “…enigmas and puzzles [to] keep the professors busy for centuries…” doesn’t just preclude immediate understanding but much like the characters, situations and emotions it portrays, escapes the very notion of  “understanding.”

Ulysses is deep.  It’s complex.  It’s thoroughly “modern.” It’s the type of thing Vivaldi would have hated, at least judging by this concerto:

Comparatively speaking, the ninth concerto in Vivaldi’s Opus 4 might be the collection’s most uneventful (or as close to uneventful as Vivaldi can get).  The first movement centers around a rhythmic motif and dueling violinists.  Ravishing harmonic meanderings occupy the central Largo, and the final movement seems bound up in the very conventions Vivaldi himself popularized: rapid-fire drills from the soloists between snappy orchestral responses.  It’s not bad or even boring, but the listener has “been there, done that” during the rest of La Stravaganza.

At the same time this concerto’s clearly defined structure, immediacy of form as well as feeling and expression of the composer’s style in such personal, direct gestures also make it perhaps the most distinctly Vivaldian work in the set.  Vivaldi’s fingerprints are all over it, without any inferential haze or oh-so-smart, so damned subtle allusions to cover them up.  Vivaldi wasn’t afraid to put himself out front and center, or to give his audience something they could understand (even when he was pushing musical or dramatic envelopes).

Of course no one knows for sure what Vivaldi would have thought of Joyce’s book, and since Vivaldi’s works were still collecting dust in Joyce’s time, we’ll never know what the author would have thought of Vivaldi’s music.  It’s safe to guess they would have agreed to disagree.  The erudite, open-minded Joyce might have even conceded that “form” isn’t always a dirty word, and sometimes it’s harder to personalize conventions rather than simply ignore them.

(Rim Shot)

And a very happy Father’s Day to all the dads, grandpas, papas, paters, patriarchs and anyone else reading this post, plus my own father, who thinks “blogging” is a form of pirate-era torture (or maybe an exotic dessert topping).  Love ‘ya, Dad!

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Domenica con Vivaldi: Tense, Experimental and Indifferent. What Century Is This?

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 8 in D Minor
RV 249
Solo Instrument: Violin
Published as Part of: Opus 4, “La Stravaganza
Soloists: Monica Huggett (first clip) and Francesa Vicari (third clip)
Ensembles: Academy of Ancient Music, dir. Christopher Hogwood (first clip), Arte dei Suonatori (second clip) and Concerto Italiano, dir. Rinaldo Alessandrini (third clip)

The premier of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Charlie Parker’s first gig on 52nd Street. The Ramones’ first show at CBGB.

The first performance of the eighth concerto in Vivaldi’s La Stravaganza.

There are no photographs or fan commentaries from that last event, but based on the music alone it had to have been just as powerful and shocking. It’s not just the soloist’s ranging chromaticism, or Vivaldi’s choice to open with a solo instead of an ensemble statement (or for that matter a clearly defined key or steady rhythm):

Aside from the formal surprises, Vivaldi begins by stranding his listener emotionally as well as musically. The orchestra offers no solace, trouncing between solos, indifferent to the defamiliarizing mood the soloist paints with every line.

Apparently Vivaldi’s work has also left record producers stranded: none are certain just how to split up Vivaldi’s markings of “Allegro, Adagio, Presto, Adagio, Allegro” between CD tracks. Some arrange them into a standard three-movement, fast/slow/fast format, with a central movement interrupted by a sudden burst of virtuosity in quadruple time. Others treat RV249 as a two-part series, with the Allegro simply dissolving mid-phrase on a suspension [at 1:55 in the above clip].

Either way, Vivaldi doesn’t provide any clear separation between movements, so no matter where the tracks fall the brief first Adagio [again at 1:55] seems like a coda and the succeeding Presto like a cadenza [igniting at 2:04].  The sheets of glazed sound that follow in the second Adagio [see clip below] are more like an appendix, offering the closest thing to resolution in this piece:

The final Allegro [click "Play" below to hear] focuses on an orchestral theme and the soloist’s variations. Structurally it’s more conventional than the opening, but this time the orchestra’s wide leaps and acerbic edges provide the uncertain atmosphere:


The soloist in turn tries to smooth things over but just adds to the tension.  His tamer, more regular patterns seem at odds with, and unnerved by, the splintered, chattering atmosphere around him.  Whether or not eighteenth century audiences felt the same when they heard this work for the first time is unknown.  It sounds like that was beside the point for troublemaking modernist Tony Vivaldi.

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Domenica con Vivaldi: Throwback, Er, Kick Back and Relax

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 7 in C Major
RV 185
Solo Instrument: Violin (Maybe Two, plus a Cello…)
Published as Part of: Opus 4, “La Stravaganza
Soloist: Adrian Chandler
Ensemble: La Serenissima, dir. Chandler

Coming midway through a set of twelve works subtitled “The Extravagance” or “Eccentricity,” this concerto lets the listener catch their breath amidst all of the harmonic and rhythmic stravaganze passing through the first half, as well as the even greater surprises to come in the second half.

The four-movement, slow/fast/slow/fast form is a throwback to the “church sonata,” where contemplation rather than excitement starts things off, where there’s just as many slow movements as fast ones. By contrast, the three movement, fast/slow/fast form starts and ends at a good clip and offers a chance to reflect in the middle. It’s also the form that Vivaldi helped popularize, and which appears in the other eleven concertos in this set.

For the first movement, a tonic arpeggio hammers home the plain-Jane key of C major.  The ensemble spreads bright, thoroughly uneventful garlands, and the soloist unfolds a similarly gorgeous but stereotypically Vivaldian sequence (with soloist Adrian Chandler going rogue with his own cadenza).  It’s beautiful, refined and more than a little reminiscent of drifting off to sleep in a hammock, or on a pew:

The Red Priest doesn’t wake his sleeping flock up straightaway in the second movement [starting at 1:56 in the above clip].  While fast(er), its stuttering theme is more like a poke than a pronouncement.  Gradually some more agitated seconds sneak in [at 2:04], make their way around the violins, then the violas and finally open things up for the soloist [at 2:26].  Though once again leaning on sequences, now the protagonist sounds scrappy as well as elegant, with an especially independent line in the second solo [where, at about 3:20, you might hear why listening to this stuff and jazz is so intuitive for this blogger].

The remaining movements up the throwback factor even further, with the use of two violin soloists (and a cello in the fourth movement) reminiscent of the concerto grosso, which emphasized the contrast between a group of soloists and the sound of the large ensemble, rather than an independent single soloist.  It was also another form that Vivaldi’s innovations left in the stylistic dust.

Staccato chords and restrained imitations in the third movement [starting at 4:10] and the continuous dialog between the trio and the full orchestra in the fourth movement [starting at 5:42] are also a nod to composer Arcangelo Corelli, a composer still synonymous with the church sonata and concerto grosso as well as a powdered, hyper-elegant style.  Aside from the spidery cello in the final movement that would have unnerved the older composer, Vivaldi is indulging in dutiful tribute, maybe some good-natured ribbing.  Yet the balance between movements and parts heard here was a break for the listener, rather than a habit for its composer.

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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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Domenica con Vivaldi: Looking for Applause in All the Right Places

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 4 in A Minor
RV 357
Solo Instrument: Violin
Published as Part of: Opus 4, “La Stravaganza
Soloist: various
Ensemble: various

Forgetting my surroundings the other evening as I listened to a violinist just plain own a concerto, I came dangerously close to committing a major faux pas at a classical venue: clapping.

In classical music, clapping is only authorized at the close of an entire piece or, on the rarest occasions, between movements, so showing my appreciation right after an especially burning solo section would have been out of line. After all, this wasn’t any of a thousand varieties of performance where audiences respectfully but passionately interact with the music, this was a classical concert.

There’s plenty of historical and anecdotal evidence to tell us that conventions weren’t always so rigid, yet the third movement of Opus 4, Number 4 shows us one ritornello at a time:

Every time the opening ensemble phrase pops up, it’s answered by fast and furious displays from the soloist.  The second solo includes [at about 1:05] a particularly angular, intricate sequence, the type of thing a listener might applaud.  By this point the ritornello is so familiar that if it gets drowned out by applause (not unlike the opening bars of one jazz soloist following another at a club), the audience won’t miss much.  Vivaldi is often criticized for being repetitive, but that criticism not only forgets the power of repetition, it assumes that the composer was looking to hold his audience in rapt attention at all times.

Vivaldi did understand the value and art of building bridges with listeners.  The first movement of this concerto invites the audience in with a simple but infectious hook based on a descending fifth:

The soloist teases the brawny, ominous orchestra at every turn, till by the second movement [heard at 3:02 in the last clip or at the start of the following clip] the continuo drops out and the orchestra changes from dark pursuer to bright, searing accompanist:

The soloist in turn shines with one of Vivaldi’s haunting rhapsodies.  The spare accompaniment allows even the slightest ornaments to Vivaldi’s line to be heard.  Yet few of Vivaldi’s slow, endlessly unfolding central movements are singable or even memorable: it’s as though the composer was looking to keep the listener forever “in the moment.”

There’s no room to clap during this movement, even if one felt this type of emotional moment warranted such a reaction, yet it’s seems unlikely that audiences hearing this music as music (rather than history, culture or background) sat there quietly when the music stopped and the orchestra turned the page to the next movement.  Vivaldi knew his audience and was looking to engage and impress them, not just hold them in monastic stasis.

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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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Domenica con Vivaldi: Not So Slow but Plenty Steady

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 2 in E Minor
RV 279
Solo Instrument: Violin
Published as Part of: Opus 4, “La Stravaganza
Soloist: Rachel Podger
Ensemble: Arte dei Suonatori

Timing.  Here, it’s all about timing:

Crisscrossing counterpoint around a steadily repeating note starts things off with elegance and anxiousness, as well as Vivaldi’s signature touch with a minor key.  (He also nods to his own cheerier use of repeated notes in this set’s previous concerto).  The ensembles just keep swirling and building, the orchestral parts pulling tighter at one another, until a breath of major key air [at 0:24] pulls the tension back slightly and keeps things from turning into a drain or a cliché.

The soloist picks up the minor key [at 0:38] with its own spiraling variations, yet almost immediately slides into cooler, rhapsodic lines [at 0:44].  Vivaldi isn’t about to give the audience all he’s got up front.  The next solo episode [at 1:21] allows for singing tone in the upper register followed by plunging phrases, with the remaining solos flashy but never wild.  Vivaldi maintains a sense of stylish tension, aided by a seamless continuity between soloist and orchestra.

Even the second movement Largo [starting at 4:08], usually a chance for a soloist to pour their heart into long, glistening lines, at first seems comparatively restrained, mostly devoted to abstract responses to the orchestra’s sighing chords.  Yet the stravaganze, the unexpected, even bizarre effects alluded to in the title of Opus 4, materialize with some spicy harmonic turns  [for example at 4:50, 5:44 or 6:10].  It’s slow, it’s subtle, perhaps even a little calculated, but it teases the listener about what else the composer has in store.

With one movement to go Vivaldi pulls out all the rhythmic and virtuoso stops, with a breakneck chase and a series of finger-busting solos [start the engines at 7:15].  This time around the soloist’s exclamations grow increasingly flashier, until a climactic run over orchestral stop chords [kicking off at 9:28] cues the opening theme to strike up again, building to a completely expected, utterly bracing finale.

Timing.  It’s all about the timing.

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Domenica con Vivaldi: Start with Enjoyment and Go from There

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 1 in B Flat Major
RV 383
Solo Instrument: Violin
Published as Part of: Opus 4, “La Stravaganza
Soloist: Simon Standage, violin
Ensemble: The English Concert, dir. Trevor Pinnock

This might be Vivaldi’s most fun concerto, perhaps one of the most simply enjoyable works he ever penned.  While the first work in his Opus 4 forecasts the unpredictable, extravagant displays hinted at in the set’s title, the first movement begins with an instantly memorable motor rhythm.  The opening ritornello, built off of a catchy repeated note answered by a jittery double-time phrase, predicts both the lighthearted themes of the Classical era and the booty-shaking riffs of the twenty-first century (voice it for a synthesizer, transpose it to a minor key and you might have a Lansdowne Street anthem):

The soloist [entering at 0:44 in the above clip] in turn has a ball, twisting out rapidly oscillating thirds in a taut ascending sequence, joined by a second soloist slicing away behind him.  Thanks in part to the continuously propulsive ground rhythm and subtly rising modulations, it all proceeds logically yet organically, through a total deconstruction of the theme [at 1:18] and then a seemingly inevitable minor key episode [at 1:32].  Vivaldi neither invented or even perfected these  devices, yet they transpire so effortlessly that musical technique becomes simple, timeless “good music.”

And then, a lullaby in triple meter: the second movement [at 3:10] is flowing, melodic and open to as much or as little ornamentation as the soloist desires: it works just as well as an understated respite between the fire of the outer movements, or a busily decorated bridge between them.  Depending on the listener’s interpretation, its lyricism and brevity are either an elegant contrast, or a tease.

Oddly enough, the final movement [5:27] of the first concerto in an entire set of solo violin concertos is devoted to the chop and chug of the orchestra.  The first violins harp on a descending second, as though mocking the first movement, and proceed to hog all of the attention until a brief flash of pyrotechnics from the soloist towards the end [6:59].  Vivaldi knew exactly what he was doing: the sudden contrast of instrumental texture, of a lithe soloist against orchestral brawn, makes the concluding ensemble flourish an anti-climax.  The movement ends and the rest of Opus 4 begins with curiosity as to what else Vivaldi has in mind for his protagonist.

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