Domenica con Vivaldi: You Should Hear Him Ad-Lib!

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 D Major
RV 230
Solo Instrument: One [Helluva’] Violin
Published as Part of: Opus 3, “L’Estro Armonico
Soloist: Fabio Biondi, violin
Ensemble: Europa Galante, dir. Biondi

Among other notes from Uffenbach‘s visit to Venice in 1715, the German traveler seems to barely believe his own description of Vivaldi’s violin, let alone the sights and sounds he witnessed:

Vivaldi played a solo accompaniment, splendid, to which he appended a cadenza which really frightened me, for such playing has never been nor can be: he brought his fingers up to only a straw’s distance from the bridge, leaving no room for the bow, and that on all four strings with imitations and incredible speed.

Descriptions are often suspect but impressions are sincere.  Numerous records indicate that whatever Vivaldi was doing, it was enough to impress and stupefy audiences.  They also indicate that like most practicing musicians of his era, Vivaldi improvised regularly, bringing an impromptu magic to his music that printed scores can never duplicate.

We may never know what Vivaldi’s improvisations sounded like, but the runaway solo violin dominating the ninth concerto in his Opus 3 collection provides several ideas.  The orchestral accompaniment is catchy, but after a dramatic introductory tutti, the ensemble fades into spirited backdrop for the soloist’s flights:

The solo violin emerges [at 0:29] with a swaggering turn of phrase and barely a mention of the opening ritornello.  It’s a little cocky, but the part emerges so independently and organically it’s easy to think it’s off the cuff.  At one point [0:57 in this clip] the soloist even throws in humorous mimicry of the ensemble’s phrase ending.  The cresting sixteenth notes have an air of flash for the sake of itself, but who cares?  That sense of showmanship kept Vivaldi in business teaching and selling his works throughout Europe (including a set of concertos to Uffenbach). The bass pedal point under the soloist’s extravagant finish [check out 1:27] is another dramatic, slightly cliche and utterly satisfying touch.

Vivaldi’s lyrical middle movements often recall slow opera arias bursting with sensuality.  Yet while the opening notes of this concerto’s “Larghetto” [unfolding at 1:59] set the stage for a long-breathed rhapsody, the soloist instead builds on a few repeating motives, like a jazz soloist experimenting with their favorite licks.  The solo begins with a coy pattern based on intervals and alternated slurred and detached notes [pictured above], then moves on [at 3:18] to further undulating phrases, similar to the first movement but now cast as invitation rather than defiance.  Popping high notes let the soloist show off glistening tone amidst all the runs.  It’s exactly the fine line between display and beauty Vivaldi loved to tread (no wonder this audience clapped before the whole concerto finished).

The first pattern from the slow movement pops up in the third and final movement [sliding in at 5:31], this time interrupted by cheeky scalar rips [like the one at 5:55] and and machine gunning thirty-second notes [watch out at 6:38!].  The concerto closes feeling less like a a through-composed, thematically expansive “piece” and more like a spontaneous outing transcribed for posterity.  It might not make for the subject of a thesis, but it works as damned good music.

Apparently Johann Sebastian Bach agreed Better than any blog, here’s Bach’s transcription for keyboard:

For listeners who find Fabio Biondi’s tempos a little too zippy, here’s a slightly statelier interpretation by The English Concert:

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