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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Violin Concertos Op. 8 Nos. 1-4 (1725) (arr. piano solo Jeffrey Biegel) [38:17]
Mandolin Concerto in C major, RV 425 (1725), (arr. piano solo Andrew Gentile) [10:27]
Lute Concerto in D major, RV 93 (arr. piano solo Andrew Gentile) [11:48]
Jeffrey Biegel (piano)
rec. 15-17 February, 2008, Patrych Sound Studios, New York City, USA
NAXOS 8.570031 [60:32]
Experience Classicsonline

Some of the great masterworks of the baroque period have long been subject of a diverse array of transcriptions by later composers - Bach’s Art of Fugue, for example, has been rearranged for string quartet, wind band, viols, and even accordion ensembles. Bach himself performed keyboard arrangements of Vivaldi concerti, and Busoni followed quite literally in the master’s footsteps by reworking Bach for the piano. Now we have a brand new entry into this tradition, but unfortunately it does not live up to its pedigree. I am not entirely sure why we need a solo piano version of Vivaldi’s legendary Four Seasons when the original is so universally beloved, but Jeffrey Biegel, a pianist who has made several commendable CDs for Naxos in the past, has supplied us with one and performs it himself on a new disc. Apparently Biegel based his performance on a previously-published arrangement for solo piano, making his own additions and embellishments along the way. Even with these changes the transcription is not particularly imaginative, however, so that although this Four Seasons album is valuable as a curiosity, most listeners will find themselves hungering for the vastly more expressive originals.

Biegel’s reworking of the Seasons for solo piano is extremely straightforward - probably too much so. There is very little ornamentation in the baroque style, as one might hear in a period-practice performance, and the few attempts Biegel makes often sound like wrong notes. The solo violin part is transcribed into the piano’s upper registers, the accompaniment given to the left hand, and the writing and playing conspire to keep surprises to an absolute minimum. Maybe a lack of imagination in the transcription process is a good sign in one sense - why would you want to mess with Vivaldi? - but I also think that it creates this album’s main problem, which is that, in the absence of any really compelling piano writing, all that we can do as listeners is recall how wonderful the original version was. This Four Seasons is like a shadow of the one we know and love, a mere teaser for the real thing.

As for the playing itself - Biegel is honest and direct in his pianism, though not exactly perfect technically. There are some very clear missteps in Summer’s thunderstorm and the opening movement of Autumn, among other places. With music this familiar, the miscues are rather hard to ignore.

In Biegel’s hands some of the seasons sound an awful lot like romantic-era miniatures - the slow movement of Spring and beginning of Summer, for instance, sound like gentle sketches from the notebook of Moritz Moszkowski or Anton Rubinstein. (The famous “barking dogs,” in the second movement of Spring, have here been spayed and neutered.) Biegel’s tone is clear and elegant, even when his romantic view results in a little too much delicacy or schmaltz. The disc would be almost perfect background music for sipping on wine at a social occasion and remarking to your conversation partners just how refreshing you always find Vivaldi’s music.

I do think Biegel’s transcription is interesting in one sense. In the nineteenth century, when recordings did not exist and concerts were not open to everyone, most listeners were exposed to music for the first time by piano transcriptions. For instance, Brahms personally arranged his symphonies for piano four-hands, allowing talented amateurs in the comfort of their own homes to discover the latest orchestral masterworks. Amateur pianists today will likely be interested in Biegel’s transcriptions because it will allow them, too, to play Vivaldi’s great masterwork without stretching their technical skills too far. This CD is almost an advertisement for the transcription, offering amateur players everywhere the opportunity to play the Seasons at home like piano players a century ago might have performed Brahms’ latest for their families. The problem is that we no longer live in an age where recordings are hard or impossible to find. I think we can congratulate hobby piano players on their good fortune on this elegant, simple, charmingly romanticized transcription of the Four Seasons for their instrument. As a listener, however, I do not see any special reward in this work. As I listen to Biegel delicately dance through these concerti - in wonderfully intimate sound, by the way - I can’t help yearning for the bracing sound of a baroque ensemble, the thrilling risk-taking of soloists working in the period style, and the big-hearted tone of the solo violin.

Naxos already has a superb recording of the Four Seasons in its original form, with superstar violinist Cho-Liang Lin joining the chamber group Sejong. (The disc has other stars, too: veteran Anthony Newman is on hand to play harpsichord, and one of the Sejong players is violinist Adele Anthony, wife of Gil Shaham and a superb performer in her own right.) If you have that recording, or indeed any good performance of Vivaldi’s signature work, you will likely find yourself returning to it with new appreciation after hearing this one. Pianists will perhaps find this transcription appealing, but I suspect that even some reasonably creative hobby performers could do a more creative job than Biegel has.

The filler works on this disc are perhaps emblematic of its problem: a mandolin concerto, the opening of which sounds unhappily similar to a joke by P.D.Q. Bach, and a very appealing lute concerto. I have heard neither work before, but now I have an irresistible urge to find them in their original forms. It is likely that once I do there will be little or no need for me to return to this workmanlike reduction. Useful, perhaps, and an intriguing return to a forgotten era of piano transcription for home entertainment, but most listeners will find this album uninspiring.

Brian Reinhart 


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