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.
Sometimes it’s the music of another artist. Other times it’s prerecorded work playing during live shows (“Pieces of Me” remains a supreme act of betrayal for this blogger). Either way, today’s audiences are used to “musicians” pawning off other sounds as their own. It hardly a case of Luddite grumpiness to observe that technology, in part, makes this phenomenon possible.
In the days before mixing boards and overdubs, pop acts like Vivaldi dealt with the opposite phenomenon: hack composers and opportunistic publishers slapping his respected name onto their stuff. Musicologist and Vivaldi groupie Michael Talbot has even questioned the authenticity of half of the twelve concertos published as Vivaldi’s Opus 7.
Listening in light of Talbot’s commentary, the first concerto in the set does seem to lack Vivaldi’s spark:
There’s a singsong monotony and harmonic placidity to this concerto that doesn’t even sound like Vivaldi on a bad day. He could be predictable and excessive, but was rarely boring. Even when he phoned it in, there was at least one interesting twist of the chords or some catchy rhythm. Here, the first movement’s sequences and the second movement’s stabbing notes and tender melody are just knockoffs of what the master did so well.
Or maybe Vivaldi was trying something new. In the nine years separating Vivaldi’s groundbreaking Opus 3 and this collection, the Red Priest had grown a large fan base through both printed scores and live performances across Europe, and popular tastes were beginning to change. A few years down the line Vivaldi would face fierce competition in the opera house from Neapolitan upstarts, whose light, supple approach was a move away from the dense textures and exaggerated emotions of the Baroque, and a move towards the relaxed vibe of the Galant Era. Vivaldi drew upon that style in some of his later works, but this concerto is just a case of “too little, too soon” and “nice try.”