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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