Like community service, I feel it is the duty of every reviewer to take on at least one recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons a year. With plenty of versions to choose from already, each new recording will need some kind of USP – a star soloist perhaps, or something scholarly. In this case, to sum up Kati Debretzeni’s booklet note, another layer is being added to our listening experience through the addition of Bruegel-esque scene setting, on one occasion through actual sounds – bird-song in the opening movement of Spring – but with the intention of providing a “Guided tour of the Four Seasons” using the descriptive sonnets as a key.
This is all intriguing and invites exploration, but in fact this recording doesn’t really go very much further in this direction than some other recordings. We have the aforementioned birdsong which is promising, but precious little else. The Accademia Bizantina shows how Vivaldi’s own violin notation can create a garden of birds very nicely without resorting to this kind of gimmick (see review). If we are going for theatricality and special effects then to my mind it would have been more interesting to follow this through more thoroughly, though you then have the dilemma as to when things start becoming ridiculous. Do we have barking dogs on stage? shooting guns and thunder machines? Either there needs to be more in this direction or leave out the birdsong, which leads us to expect something which the production doesn’t deliver. In fact, these musicians are very good at letting the programmatic nature of the music speak for itself, with the strings relishing contrasts of colour and a full range of expression from rough digging into the strings to lovely expressive phrasing and sonority.
The booklet has all of the sonnets printed in Italian and English, with useful references and timings to show where Vivaldi has indicated which part of the score goes with which line of the sonnet. All we are missing here are CD track numbers, so the last nth of convenience is lost and you are likely to find yourself doing quite a lot of fiddly finger counting.
This performance is excellent, performed with panache and captured with a refreshingly bright sound which is highly enjoyable. The playing is indeed more descriptive than many, with staggering drunkard of Autumn followed by convincing dives, and the shivers of Winter suitably chilly with some excellent legno effects. The only quibble I have is with a couple of movements which are taken perhaps just a little too slowly, emphasising the repetitive nature of the music. The third movement of Autumn is one of these. The dynamic nature of the playing in the orchestra and Debretzeni’s variation in the solo part is just enough to carry us through, but only in the way the Beatles’ unique sound just keeps us from giving up on ‘Yellow Submarine’ as a bad job. The only other quibble I would have is the short playing time, but this is by no means the only stand-alone Four Seasons to appear.
If you already have a good ‘authentic’ version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons then this recording may not teach you a huge amount of new things about the music, but it is highly enjoyable in its own right and if you only have a clutch of more conventional ‘star-performer’ versions then it is certainly worth exploring.
Masterwork Index: The Four Seasons