Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741) The Four Seasons, op. 8 nos. 1-4 (1725)
Dresdner Residenz Orchester/Igor Malinovsky (violin)
rec. 2017, Bethanienkirche, Leipzig GENUIN GEN18553 [39:12]
Given that there are so many recordings of The Four Seasons, you look for something distinctive, which is sometimes the other concertos on a CD. Not this one, which stingily has no coupling, but is distinctive in a way you don’t realize from any advertising until you look at the personnel in the CD booklet and discover that for this recording the Dresdner Residenz Orchester – hereafter the DRO - numbers just eight players including the soloist/director. I know of only one other recording like this on modern instruments, that made in 2004 by Janine Jansen and friends (Decca 4756293) which I shall use for comparison. This isn’t a reduced orchestral version. Vivaldi straightforwardly scores the concertos for soloist, first violin, second violin, viola and basso continuo: the number of accompanying instruments used is up to the performers. The interpretation of basso continuo varies. On this Malinovsky CD it’s two cellos, double bass and harpsichord. On Jansen’s CD, also with eight players, it’s cello, double bass, theorbo, chamber organ or harpsichord.
Commentary on the effectiveness of performances must take account of the work’s programme, closely related to the score in early sources. The first concerto’s opening tutti introduces a merry Spring, perky, bright yet with clean dynamic contrasts from the DRO, from which come forward three soloists, three violin birds distinctively piping with more than a hint of competitiveness between them. Now a strings’ ensemble stream bubbles along contentedly but then thunder arrives, not very strikingly with these small forces, yet enough to make the chief bird Malinovsky quite panicky. The pace has been sprightly so far but the following tutti is slower - not marked by Vivaldi - making the three birds’ returning song rather crestfallen. The opening tutti returns but now seems less happy. Jansen’s tutti opening has less dynamic contrast but more spring and swing to it. Her three birds are gentler, very friendly and deliver their songs in an intimate, caressing manner. Her stream flows balmily. Her storm is a little rougher, but hardly scary, though her chief bird is alarmed. There’s no halting of tempo, so while the birds seem chastened and damp, their spirits are quickly recovered.
The slow movement is time for a soulful Vivaldi melody. This one is just the goatherd dreaming, but about what? From Malinovsky, it seems to be some unattained longing of a tense gravitas that transcends the continually barking dog from the viola and rustling foliage of the two accompanying violins. Jansen’s dreams are gentler, more reflective, less declamatory yet with more sensitive added ornamentation in the repeat than Malinovsky’s.
The finale is a Country Dance to celebrate Spring. For Malinovsky, this is the most serene time, stylish and curvaceous, notwithstanding the drone in the viola and bass, a clear harpsichord adding to the luxuriance. With a coy, beguiling drag at times in his chief dancer’s solo, Malinovsky brings a hint of seduction. There’s also this, more toying still, in Jansen’s chief dancer. Her band’s drone is even more understated, the dance rhythms somewhat heartier, yet her violins have more sheen. An idealized scene from both CDs.
The second concerto, Summer, isn’t idealized: everyone’s hot and flaked out. Malinovsky brings something of a mournful quality to this. Now there are more specific bird impersonations from just his violin to buck things up: an energized cuckoo, cajoling turtle-dove and dazzling goldfinch. It’s all vivid and then a gentle Zephyr briefly charms before the biting Boreas. The precision of the small ensemble is exhilarating, but you don’t feel that you’re in danger of being knocked over. The movement ends with Malinovsky the village boy crying rather indulgently in fear of the coming storm. Timing the movement at 5:22 to Malinovsky’s 4:59, Jansen pays more attention to the latter aspect of Vivaldi’s marking Allegro mŕ non molto. This makes for an opening of more slinking lethargy, while still longing for repose. Jansen’s cuckoo is happier, merrier, less tense than Malinovsky’s, her turtle-dove and goldfinch equally distinctive, her Zephyr bright, her Boreas lively, more so the Malinovsky’s. Jansen’s drawling village boy is for me overindulgent, but the return to the Boreas music in the coda is exciting.
The weather gets no better in the slow movement which has from Malinovsky a cantilena longing for peace, beautifully done, adumbrating the softness of repose sought, but not found because the accompanying violins are flies and wasps and all the accompanying instruments interject with rumbles of thunder. The finale is then the hell of violent summer weather unleashed - or it should be. From the DRO’s excellent ensemble it’s crisp and lively but not exactly violent, though the soloist’s reaction has more frenzy about it. Jansen’s slow movement also finds her expressive in the cantilena though for me she overdoes the ornamentation a touch in the phrase repeats. Her accompanists’ thunder is louder and more ominous. But it’s her finale that’s more of a revelation: sonorous and scary; even the light descents have a sabre flashing quality, yet when there’s a lull the intensity is still maintained, that sense of power held in reserve is chillingly threatening. Why is it twice as exciting as the DRO? The adage comes to mind that it’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog. Jansen’s solos are also demonic to match.
The third concerto, Autumn, is the villagers’ harvest festival. Its first movement (tr. 7) is dance, drink and then sleep. Malinovsky is here at his most brilliant: breathtakingly pacy, virtuosic and well matched by dapper accompaniment. Enjoyable indeed, even if they don’t sound like villagers, more like a smart set of well-heeled youngsters off clubbing. The drink does cause Malinovsky to slither around. I would, however, have liked his companions, the basso continuo from 0:58 and then all the other accompanying players from 1:17, to have let their hair down more. As he leaves off the rapid runs from time to time, Malinovsky becomes more maudlin and continues latterly in this vein when he gets sleepy, yet engagingly maintains his dignity nevertheless. The closing ritornello is then the fastest of all. Does this mean the clubbers left can keep going all night? Jansen’s villagers are heftier and thereby more rustic and robust. The accompanying instruments get more involved in the drunken antics. Jansen herself clearly enjoys the tumbling about, brings to the quiet passages a tiptoeing glee and can also find the time for some flirting. The sleepy parts are a bit doleful but also delicate. Listening to all this, you realize that Vivaldi’s score is a magical gift with which you can do what you like. Jansen’s closing ritornello is a revivifying of everything.
The slow movement displays sustained repose which does come eventually with muted strings and the soloist doubling the accompanying first violin, so at one with his companion in sleep. Vivaldi’s chromatic wanderings give the repose an element of restlessness, furthered here by a rather busy harpsichord lutestop and progressive approach to the Adagio molto marking. The finale is the next day’s hunt (tr. 9). This begins brusque and business-like from Malinovsky and his solo portrayal gives us an athletic, well matched prey. But the relentless weight of the hunters and the vivid snapping dogs from 1:53 wear the victim down; his death from 2:27 is quick and unfussy. The hunters’ ritornello ends the movement just as impassively. Jansen’s slow movement, timing at 2:45 to Malinovsky’s 2:26, is a truer Adagio molto, creating a sense of mystery and a special place, less edgy than Malinovsky’s, though a little disturbed by another busy harpsichord. Jansen’s hunters enjoy themselves more than Malinovsky’s. They have a rugged physicality and something of a swagger too. Their prey is lighter, with no trace of bravado, clearly flying for his life before exhaustion takes over. Jansen’s dogs don’t snap as viciously, but the hunters’ final ritornello has the satiation of a job well accomplished.
The opening movement of the fourth concerto, Winter, is given an oppressive momentum by Malinovsky with creepy harpsichord trickling, but it’s Malinovsky’s very fast first solo as a frightening wind that might well make your hair stand on end, after which his stamping of feet with the accompanying instruments (tr. 10, 1:10) is lighter in manner, but his following solo work grabs the attention once more. It made me think of a spinning top. The accompanying first and second violins’ chattering of teeth (2:27) is also quite light yet does have an element of grinding edginess confirmed in the frisson of the closing ritornello. Timing the movement at 3:08 to Malinovsky’s 3:21, Jansen puts a little more emphasis on the first element of the marking Allegro non molto. Through this, she’s able to achieve edginess even with light articulation. Her opening solo is frisky, but less scary than Malinovsky’s. Her stamping of feet with the accompanying instruments has more vigour and there’s more energy in her solo response. Her ensemble’s teeth chattering is more distinctive and the closing ritornello suitably vigorous.
The slow movement has the solo violin cosily by the fireside while pizzicato first and second violin accompaniment portrays heavy rain outside. Malinovsky is serenely lyrical and confidently adds ornamentation in the repeats but the rain, marked forte, should be more prominent for this era without double glazing. Jansen’s rain is, but her faster tempo, timing at 1:33 to Malinovsky’s 1:54, seems a touch perfunctory for the Largo marking. The finale is about battling the ice, at first cautiously, then more boldly, but when Malinovsky’s ensemble falls over (tr. 12, 0:56) I feel this should be with more of a jolt. Then their definition of running strongly is fast but light, then more confident, I loved Malinovsky’s spins in triplets, but when the ice breaks (1:35) this should be more shattering in effect. The focus of the second part of the movement is on the winds. The Sirocco (1:50) is a warm, gentle one, now allowing all the DRO to experience the idyllic cosiness of the slow movement. Malinovsky’s solo bracingly brushes this aside with Boreas (2:25), with which all the winds, firmly added by the DRO, make for an emphatic close. Jansen brings more drama and atmosphere to the finale. There’s a sinister edge from the opening; while the ensemble falling down is no more marked than Malinovsky’s, Jansen’s breaking of the ice is more vivid and the Sirocco’s effect becomes almost dreamy before a spine-tingling Boreas and peroration.
To sum up, there are some splendid moments on this disc, but while Malinovsky does have something of a ‘wow’ factor at times, unfortunately this isn’t always transferred to the DRO which most of the time settles for neat articulation. If you’d like a one-instrument-per-part performance on modern instruments, Jansen is preferable, while on period instruments there’s Brecon Baroque/Rachel Podger (Channel Classics CCSSA 40318). Both are about 20% more expensive than Malinovsky, Jansen also without any coupling but Podger with three added concertos. With a standard chamber orchestra on modern instruments, Joshua Bell directing the Academy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields (Sony 88697357052) is only 70% of the price of Malinovsky and has Tartini’s Devil’s trill sonata as a coupling. He plays with sensitivity and flair, but the orchestra for me is a bit heavy. My favourite recording remains the 2000 one by Europe Galante/Fabio Biondi (Erato 6025032), with all eight op. 8 concertos on 2 CDs for 80% of the price of the single Malinovsky CD. Biondi gives you the full range of contrast of grace and venom. I comment on his account extensively as a comparison for Salvatore Accardo’s with the modern instruments of I Solisti di Napoli (Eloquence 482 5091, review). Accardo is 10% more expensive than Malinovsky but on two CDs provides six Bach violin concertos in addition. As Accardo is a model of stylishness, he’s also a strong contender in this very competitive field.
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