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.
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.