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CD Review: Vivaldi's The Four Seasons

By John Sidgwick

LONDON, 7 July 2000 - I am second-to-none in my enthusiasm for the performance of early music on period instruments. Nevertheless, I can take equal pleasure from fine playing of such music on modern instruments. Perhaps not all. Take the music of Rameau. Somehow, it cries out for baroque strings and winds and for the harpsichord. On the other hand, one might have thought that the same would apply to Pugnani. Yet there is a recording made in 1937 by Henri Temianka of this composer's Violin Sonata in E major (op. 6 n° 1) that is so full of charm, sweetness and dexterity that I am not sure if I should like to hear it played on a baroque violin!

All this brings me to the recordings of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons made in 1999 by Anne-Sophie Mutter with the Trondheim Soloists and by David Juritz with the London Mozart Players. Given the vagaries of the English climate, which in the course of a single day can make you experience the whole gamut of a year's weather, I decided to haul out a huge pair of earphones and listen to Vivaldi's music in the peace of my north-London garden. There, in the company of a wide variety of birds, of the inevitable squirrels and with occasional visits by the resident fox, I listened to the Venetian composer's evocation of country life until I was eventually driven indoors by a hail-storm.

There cannot be the slightest doubt that Anne-Sophie Mutter is one of the world's top two or three violinists. With her impressive strength and commanding technique, she is the ideal performer of the great violin concertos of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And no doubt she will make a valuable contribution to the music of the new century. But, and it is a big "but", she is showing herself increasingly to be out of touch with the needs of smaller-scale works. The commanding presence is there all right, but it stands like a massive statue between the music and the listener. Her much-hailed account of Beethoven's complete Sonatas for Piano and Violin suffers from precisely this defect. Even when she is displaying the most delicious pianissimos, one gets the impression that this is an exercise in the projection of "me" rather than a search for the composer's intentions. Moreover, in the majority of lyrical forte passages, she indulges in a hysterical vibrato which is immediately off-putting and rapidly becomes unbearable.

The same considerations apply to her performance of The Four Seasons. Ten out of ten, shall we say, for technique. Magnificent violin-playing. Only half that or even less, alas, for the painting of the mysteries and charms of Vivaldi's music. I am reasonably sure that when I revisit this recording in a year or two's time, I shall have the same view. As for the "packaging" of the recording, Deutsche Grammophon should be ashamed of itself. A glossy cardboard folder shows the violinist in a variety of sexy poses and the booklet contains an absurd and toe-curling so-called conversation with the writer Harold Wieser - people simply do not exchange ideas in the way that they are made to do here.

Anne-Sophie Mutter chose as her filler for the disk Tartini's Devil's Trill Sonata in an arrangement for string orchestra accompaniment by Riccardo Zandonai. As in The Four Seasons, within the confines imposed by their visiting violinist/director, the Trondheim Soloists acquit themselves well of their task. But this ponderous arrangement simply does not have its place in the violin repertoire. Moreover, no mention is made on the sleeve of the fact that Anne-Sophie Mutter closes the piece with Fritz Kreisler's famous cadenza.

An entirely different approach to Vivaldi's most well-known composition is that of The London Mozart Players. A familiar and welcome presence on the London musical scene for the past fifty years, they have established an international reputation for supreme elegance and excellence of performance. Curiously, however, they never launched into The Four Seasons. Their young South African-born leader, David Juritz, decided to take up the challenge last year and how right he was to do so. On the evidence of this recording, Juritz, whose technical skills are everything that one could wish for, is a born rhetorician. And there lies the secret. All music demands that the performer should speak, but none more than the compositions of the baroque period. At every moment of his performance, Juritz is telling a story. It hardly needs the words of the text to tell you what is going on, and the sultriness of summer, for example, is marvellously contrasted with the sharp frosts of winter. This disk is a most welcome addition to the long list of those already available.

Juritz includes on the disk excellent performances of Vivaldi's two concertos for violin and double orchestra written for the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. A surround sound version of the entire disk is in preparation and will be released on DVD-A later this year.

vivaldi four seasons

Antonio Vivaldi (1678 - 1741): The Four Seasons
Giuseppe Tartini (1692 - 1770): The Devil's Trill
Anne-Sophie Mutter , violin
Trondheim Soloists
Deutsche Grammophon 463259-2 (1999)

Antonio Vivaldi (1678 - 1741): The Four Seasons
Antonio Vivaldi (1678 - 1741): Concerto in D Major for Violin and Double Orchestra
Antonio Vivaldi (1678 - 1741): Concerto in C Major for Violin and Double Orchestra
The London Mozart Players
David Juritz, conductor

John Sidgwick writes on music in Britain and France for Culturekiosque.com.

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