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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