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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Le quattro stagioni, Op.8
La Primavera (Spring) RV269 [9:34]
L’estate (Summer) RV315 [10:31]
L’autunno (Autumn) RV293 [11:26]
L’inverno (Winter) RV297 [8:32]
Largo from Concerto D major RV226 [1:34]
Concerto in B minor for 4 violins, strings and basso continuo RV580 [9:17]
Concert in A minor for violin, strings and basso continuo RV356 [7:25]
Grave from Concerto in D major, RV562 [3:14]
Sinfonia from La verità in cimento, RV739 [4:36]
Australian Chamber Orchestra/Richard Tognetti (violin)
rec. March 2014, The Concourse Chatswood Concert Hall, Sydney, Australia
BIS BIS-2103 SACD [67:37]

I very much liked Richard Tognetti’s Mozart violin concertos (see review) so, despite minor qualms about tackling yet another Vivaldi’s Four Seasons I reckoned that, if I was going to do my honest reviewer’s minimum quota of one Four Seasons a year, it might as well be this one.

Much as your Classical era composers only needed to add a few new features to the framework of the idiom of their time to make their pieces individual and special, so performers today only need to introduce small variations to make hyper-familiar repertoire their own in each new recording. Tognetti doesn’t go in for extra special effects unlike the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (review) and the birdsong in La Primavera is strings only, and very effective they are too with added little flageolet timbres in that first movement. Basses dig deep and stamp the mud from their metaphorical feet at one stage, and there is great fun to be had alongside the expected refinement and technical wizardry from the soloist. The barking dog of the Largo is nicely gruff but also in proportion, the atmosphere of gently rustling leaves nicely placed as a texture over which the solo line can rise with gentle expression. The dancing quality of the Allegro is truly uplifting.

L’Estate really has all of that languishing heat radiating from this performance, those descending lines in the opening sliding down like melting cheese. Tognetti makes part of his solo sound like a braying donkey, anticipating storms to come which are portrayed with suitable wildness from the orchestra. The contrast between ‘weary limbs’ and ‘lightening’ in the second movement is powerful, and the final arrival of that storm is tremendous, strings articulating sharply to make sure we hear rattling hailstones as well as thunder and wind.

L’Autumno sets off at a brisk pace, but is still full of nuanced dynamic and keenly observed phrasing. The Adagio molto turns into a bit of a harpsichord concerto, the player remorselessly noodling around the harmonies in the sustained strings in a way I’d rather wish they didn’t, certainly if ‘sweetest sleep’ is what we’re after. The final Allegro is suitably sturdy, with plenty of rhythmic accent and some percussive effects to help portray the ‘horns, guns and dogs.’ L’Inverno opens with some remarkable sounds, the organ taking over from the harpsichord to add to the drama with very short repeated notes underpinning the shivering strings. The central Largo is swift and groovy, crackling firewood allowing us to forget the miserable weather outside. Slip-sliding on the ice in the final Allegro, and the musicians give a real impression of peril, toying with the rhythms for the choppy cracking of the freeze – or is it the breaking of bones? Either way this is a terrific performance with a recording to match.

We are given a generous selection of fillers chosen in part for their similarity to The Four Seasons. These start with the Largo from the Concerto in D major RV 226, which is comparable to the central movement of Winter. The Grave from RV 562 is another very atmospheric slow movement, the rhapsodic solo part of which is relished by Tognetti.
There is also the complete Concerto in B minor, RV 580 for four violins, strings and continuo, which is at least as well known in J.S. Bach’s arrangement for harpsichord and strings BWV 1065. This and the Concerto in A minor RV 356 are both from L’estro armonico, Vivaldi’s excellent Op. 3 and they receive very fine performances here.

The final work is a strikingly theatrical score, played with gusto by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the Sinfonia or overture from Vivaldi’s opera La verità in cimento or ‘Truth in contention’. These brief three movements are full of refreshing harmonic surprise and a stunning close to this substantial programme, and yes, I do like the way the final bass note is allowed its full decay – around 8 seconds if my ears don’t deceive me.

Only you will know if this Four Seasons will be a requirement for your music library, but with fabulous performances and BIS’s state of the art recording I would say it has to be one of the top choices in a fiercely competitive market. If you are new to this music then you are in for a treat, and if you haven’t treated yourself to a new one lately, this is worth more than just a punt. The booklet tells us that Richard Tognetti was made an Australian National Living Treasure in 1999, and that’s the way I feel about this release – it is indeed one to treasure.

Dominy Clements