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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Complete Concertos and Sinfonias for Strings and Basso Continuo
Details after review
L’Archicembalo (on historical instruments)
rec. May 2015, Palazzo Ghilini, Alessandria, Italy; July, October & December 2018, Cappella del Seminario Vescovile, Tortona (AL), Italy. DDD.
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 95835 [4 CDs: 261:53]

The original Brilliant Classics Vivaldi box set of 40 CDs contained three discs of these works, 29 concertos and sinfonias in total, in decent performances by Budapest Strings. In the revised 66-CD edition, some of the merely decent recordings had been replaced with newer, more exciting accounts, notably from L’Arte dell’Arco (94840 – review). The decent but slightly heavy Budapest recordings of the string concertos, however, were retained and I recommended supplementing them with three alternative albums from Simon Standage and Collegium Musicum 90 (Chandos CHAN0647, 0668 and 0687).

At 65.89 from Amazon UK when I checked, that 66-CD Brilliant Box remains excellent value and now you can supplement it with four CDs of the string concertos and sinfonias for around 13 or $20 (8.63 as a lossless download, with pdf booklet).

The Brilliant Box, in both versions, also contained a CD of Concerti per archi, string concertos, recorded by Fabio Biondi (violin) with Concerto Italiano and Rinaldo Alessandrini; like part of the new set it was licensed from Tactus. Though made as long ago as 1988 by performers whose period style has developed since, those recordings, which include RV124 and 154, together with four concertos not on the new collection (RV302, 367, 522 and 568) remain worth hearing. RV124 having been published as the third of Vivaldi’s Op.12 set, it’s also worth comparing Federico Guglielmo’s recording from the Op.11 and Op.12 Brilliant 2-CD set (95048 – review). Guglielmo and L’Arte dell’Arco offer a predictably lively performance; there’s very little difference in tempo, but their playing is a little more emphatic than that of L’Archicembalo. I’m a great fan of all Guglielmo’s Vivaldi – his complete Op.8 was a Recording of the Month and the Op.11/Op.12 set is in the same league – but I rather think that L’Archicembalo’s slightly plainer approach on the new set works better in this concerto.

Some of these recordings have already appeared on an album on the Tactus label, but that single CD or download costs more than the complete Brilliant set. Even if you already have it, price considerations make it worth pensioning it off and going for the new complete set.

The personnel of L’Archicembalo changed slightly between 2015 and 2018, but you would hardly know which recordings are which. The eight- or nine-strong group, who play on period instruments, offer performances of these works which would be hard to beat, unless you like Vivaldi to slap you in the face, which is fine elsewhere but just wouldn’t suit these less extrovert works.

RV114 appears on a number of recordings, notably from La Serenissima and Adrian Chandler (Avie AV2178 The French Connection review). It’s one of the concertos which Vivaldi or someone else may have intended to publish in France, along with RV154 and 119, also included on that Avie recording. I recommended the Avie in December 2009 and apart from noting that the French connection is rather less tenuous than I suggested, continue to do so, but there’s very little to choose between those performances and those on the new recording.

The recording of RV124 from Concerto Italiano in the large Brilliant Box takes just a few seconds longer than from L’Archicembalo but the developments in Vivaldi performance since 1988 are noticeable: the older recording is more elegant, the new one livelier. The same is true in the case of RV154; again, the few seconds difference make the new recording sound livelier. If that meant that the new recording sounds hectic, I would have no hesitation in keeping its stylish predecessor, but that isn’t the case at all; I enjoyed both.

Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano have made later recordings of several of these Concerto per archi, this time for the Nave/Opus 111 label. Volume 1, slightly confusingly labelled Concerti per varii stromenti 2 (OP30377 – review) contains RV115, 120, 121, 123, 129, 141, 143, 153, 154, 156, 158 and 159. By now the performances had traded some of the elegance in favour of greater energy. Where the earlier account of RV154 was a few seconds slower than L’Archicembalo, the remake matches the new recording almost to the second, and some of the other concertos even outpace those on the new Brilliant set. The difference, however, is more apparent on paper than in actuality. In RV159, for example, which opens the Nave recording, the tempo in the outer movements is significantly faster than on the new Brilliant set, while the central adagio is slower, without it sounding as if Alessandrini is too fast in the former or squeezing too much emotion out of the latter. Or as if the new recording is remiss in either movement.

Indeed, it’s only by direct comparison that L’Archicembalo sound slightly deliberate in the opening allegro of this concerto. If you subscribe to Naxos Music Library, you can try the comparison yourself, but then step back and listen to each programme complete and I believe that you would be hard pressed to dislike either in toto.

There’s something of a cautionary tale here: the download of the Nave recording which I made back in 2013 refused to play – ‘corrupt file’ it said – but, fortunately, allow access to all one’s earlier purchases, so it was easy to download again, and in lossless flac, not mp3 as I said in reviewing it in 2013/11 alongside other Vivaldi recordings from Nave/Opus 111 and Alpha.

That 2004 Nave recording contains 12 of these concertos – enough to be getting on with, you may think – but it comes at full price. For around the same price, the Brilliant Classics CDs offer 40 concertos and 11 sinfonias on four discs. If you can find them, that is: the set is reported to be out of stock from some UK dealers, but it can be downloaded in lossless CD-quality sound, with pdf booklet, for as little as 8.63.

Unusually, the Concerto madrigalesco, RV129, is in the 4-movement da chiesa style, slow-fast-slow-fast. The recording by Budapest Strings on one of the three CDs which they contribute to the Brilliant Box is not at all bad of its kind – modern instruments, but played with quite a spring in their step. All their contributions are good enough to make the box a very worthwhile buy, and I found myself enjoying them more than I remembered, but direct comparison with the Nave and the new Brilliant Classics recordings reveals the superiority of the approach on those more recent accounts. It’s not so much a matter of tempo – Banfalvi actually takes the second adagio faster than either of the recent recordings and he could even be accused of not allowing it due weight – but listen to L’Archicembalo and Concerto Italiano though at about half the speed, the music sounds lighter on its feet.

In the other named concerto, Alla rustica, RV151, too, there’s little to object to from the Budapest Strings, with a real sense of the open air about the music. Here the chosen tempos are very similar to those on the new recording but once again there’s a greater sense of lightness from L’Archicembalo. That doesn’t mean that they sound too light, however: the presence of a cello and violone makes sure that the music is firmly grounded.

Turn to La Serenissima and Adrian Chandler in RV151 on a CD of Caldara, Corelli, Albinoni, Tartini, Vivaldi and Tortelli (The Italian Job, Avie AV2371 – review) and you will hear greater tonal variety than from either the Budapest Strings or L’Archicembalo, not just in the other more showy concertos but in Alla rustica, too, but there’s a small element of cheating here, with Chandler adding two oboes and a theorbo. I ought to object but, to quote King Lear, I cannot wish the fault undone, the issue of it being so proper. In fact, without even noticing the slight deception, I thought the recording self-recommending – Summer 2017/1. That apart, there’s little to choose between the two performances, with La Serenissima marginally – and noticeably – faster than L’Archicembalo in the first two movements and vice versa in the finale.

I haven’t yet mentioned the Collegium Musicum 90 recordings. Volume 1, CHAN0647, contains twelve concertos apparently intended for publication in Paris, RV157, 133, 119, 136, 114, 154, 160, 127, 164, 121, 150 and 159, recorded in 1998. Here, too, some liberties are taken with the scores, with oboes and bassoon added to three of the concertos on the basis that they might have been added in performances in France. The opening work, RV157, is a case in point. As with the Avie recording, the result certainly spices up the tone and I enjoyed this and all the other performances, but without putting L’Archicembalo in the shade.

The prospect of 51 Vivaldi works for strings in one fell swoop may seem somewhat daunting, and I wouldn’t recommend sitting down for over four hours to hear these string-based works in one session. But there’s variety here, within the concertos and between the concertos and sinfonias. More to the point, there’s plenty of enjoyable music here, too, brought to us in stylish and very likable performances and good recording quality. Better still, unlike some budget offerings, Brilliant include a decent, if short, set of notes. Don’t splurge, but listen to a few of these works at a time and perhaps intersperse them with one of the La Serenissima and L’Arte dell’Arco albums that I’ve mentioned for maximum enjoyment.

As I was completing the conversion of this review, another Vivaldi recording swam into my ken, apparently with the mysterious title ‘Vivaldi Jupiter’. Could this herald a newly-discovered Vivaldi opera? In fact, much less excitingly, it’s a collection of Vivaldi arias and three concertos, one each for bassoon (RV495), cello (RV416) and lute (RV93). The ‘Jupiter’ in question is the name of lutenist Thomas Dunford’s recently founded ensemble of that name, who perform here with Lea Desandre (mezzo). (Alpha 550 [78:07]). Which makes it more prosaic, potentially nothing special, but all will depend on your reaction to Desandre’s contribution and that’s either startlingly dramatic or too squally, depending on your point of view. At present I haven’t decided – watch the main reviews or my next (Autumn 2019/1) edition of Short Reviews and Second Thoughts. I suspect that I shall (a) veer towards writing the singing off as too squally and (b) find myself in a minority in thinking so.

As for the Brilliant Classics, unless the sheer prospect of this much Vivaldi in one go, spread over four CDs, is too much to contemplate, this new set is worth much more than its modest price.

Brian Wilson

Concerto for Strings in C, RV110 [4:13]
Concerto for Strings in C, RV113 [6:12]
Concerto for Strings in D, RV121 [5:22]
Concerto for Strings in d minor, RV128 [5:16]
Concerto for Strings in e minor, RV134 [5:34]
Concerto for Strings in F, RV136 [4:40]
Concerto for Strings in F, RV138 [5:16]
Concerto for Strings in f minor, RV143 [5:47]
Concerto for Strings in g minor, RV153 [5:58]
Concerto for Strings in A, RV158, ‘Concerto ripieno’ [7:03]
Concerto for Strings in a minor, RV161 [3:45]
Concerto for Strings in B-flat, RV167 [5:08]
Concerto for Strings in C, RV109 [3:42]
Concerto for Strings in C, RV114 [5:56]
Concerto for Strings in c minor, RV118 [5:41]
Sinfonia for Strings in D, RV122 [3:52]
Concerto for Strings in D, RV126 [5:05]
Concerto for Strings in e minor, RV133 [5:55]
Sinfonia for Strings in F, RV135 [5:14]
Concerto for Strings in F, RV137 [6:07]
Concerto for Strings in G, RV150 [4:08]
Concerto for Strings in G, RV151, ‘Alla Rustica’ [4:00]
Concerto for Strings in A, RV159 [5:30]
Concerto for Strings in B-Flat, RV162 [4:16]
Concerto for Strings in B-Flat, RV163, ‘Conca’ [4:07]
Concerto for Strings in B-Flat, RV164 [3:59]
Concerto for Strings in C, RV115, ‘Concerto ripieno’ [3:19]
Concerto for Strings in D, Op.12/3, RV124 [6:21]
Concerto for Strings in d minor, RV129, ‘Concerto madrigalesco’ [4:46]
Sinfonia in E, RV131 [4:06]
Sinfonia in F, RV140 [5:39]
Concerto for Strings in F, RV142 [4:59]
Concerto for Strings in G, RV145 [4:14]
Sinfonia for Strings in G, RV146 [5:35]
Concerto for Strings in g minor, RV155 [10:05]
Concerto for Strings in A, RV160 [4:39]
Concerto for Strings in B-Flat, RV165 [4:26]
Concerto for Strings in B-Flat, RV166 [5:15]
Sinfonia in C, RV112 [4:07]
Sinfonia in C, RV116 [5:33]
Concerto for Strings in c minor, RV119 [4:59]
Concerto for Strings in a minor, RV120 [6:13]
Concerto for Strings in D, RV123 [5:57]
Concerto for Strings in d minor, RV127 [3:43]
Concerto for Strings in F, RV141 [4:17]
Sinfonia for Strings in G, RV149 [5:31]
Concerto for Strings in g minor, RV152 [5:23]
Concerto for Strings in g minor, RV154 [5:16]
Concerto for Strings in g minor, RV156 [5:06]
Concerto for Strings in g minor, RV157 [5:33]
Concerto for Strings in b minor, RV168 [5:05]