Vivaldi Le Quattro Stagione, La Follia Alpha Classics

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Le Quattro Stagione
Sovvente il sole
from Andromeda Liberata, RV117
Sonata in D minor, op. 1 no. 12, RV63 ‘La follia’
Paul-Antoine Bènos-Djian (countertenor)
Le Concert de la Loge/Julien Chauvin (violin)
rec. 2023, Théâtre sicilien de l’Ambassade d’Italie en France, Paris
Alpha Classics 1005 [58]

The stream of new recordings of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons seems endless: this is the second I’ve reviewed this year, and I have seen news of a Sony release of another. The perennial question is, of course, “do we really need any more?”. With the previous one on Château de Versailles Spectacles (review), my answer was “not in this case”, but when I saw that this recording was by Julien Chauvin and his Le Concert de la Loge ensemble, I was more confident of a useful addition to the catalogue. I encountered these performers for the first time in 2019 with a quite exceptional disc comprising a Haydn symphony and two Symphonie Concertantes by little-known composers (review). They have been part of Naïve’s huge Vivaldi Edition, and were highly praised by one of my colleagues (review).

So grounds then for anticipating a good reading of these works that have even withstood the “elevator music” treatment. I should say at this point that my reference for the four concertos is that by Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante (with a preference for the 1991 Opus 111 recording). Biondi’s versions are renowned for their flamboyance, some would say eccentricity, but I find them to be a perfect expression of Vivaldi’s imagination. Chauvin starts with Autumn, and I was caught a little unprepared for the boldness of the opening, as it brought to mind (not in a good way) the overly strident recording I had most recently listened to. However, my ear adjusted quickly, and I began to hear subtle elements, details brought out, that rounded off the sharp corners created by the intensity of the playing. As I listened more, I became enthralled by the fire (and ice) in their interpretations. In some instances, they even bettered Biondi (and I didn’t think I would ever write that). I have not heard the opening to Summer better portray the slow laziness of a hot Italian summer, nor the dissonant chords in the slow movement of Autumn be so disturbing. The summer storm is almost as electrifying as Biondi’s (though no recording will ever match seeing the experience of seeing and hearing him play it live in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre). However, like almost everyone else (Biondi is the exception), Chauvin takes the Largo of Winter at almost Andante tempo, and loses some of its impact. Timing-wise overall, Chauvin is a little quicker than Biondi in all but Spring, but nowhere near as extreme as Amandine Beyer (also on Alpha Classics, a version I was less enthused by – review). As you will have gathered, these are not gentle and soothing Seasons, but vivid, vibrant and full-blooded.

The two extra works are interesting, and quite different to the usual offering of other Vivaldi concertos. I’m not sure I can bring myself to call them “fillers” as fifty-eight minutes hardly constitutes a full disc. The inclusion of a single aria seems a little out of place; it would have been better had there been at least one other. Andromeda Liberata is a 1726 pasticcio-serenata, on the subject of Perseus freeing Andromeda, with contributions by several composers, honouring the visiting Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni. Sovvente il sole has a number of recordings, more or less equally divided between mezzo-sopranos (including Cecilia Bartoli and Anne Sofie von Otter) and counter-tenors. I’m not an aficionado of the latter category, but from my rather limited experience, Frenchman Paul-Antoine Bènos-Djian does a good job. Vivaldi’s take on La follia is given a quite wonderful performance, the togetherness of the ensemble is quite exceptional.

It will sound a trifle odd, given the extravaganza of violin pyrotechnics, but one of the most striking aspects of these performances was the basso continuo section, comprising theorbo, guitar, harpsichord (there is also a double bass, but I’m not sure which section it belongs to). There was a real sense that they weren’t just there to provide background. In the slow movement of Summer, at the end of each crescendo, the final “echoes” from the harpsichord were allowed to break the silence: very effective and evocative (this from someone who usually feels the harpsichord should be seen but not heard). In La follia, the baroque guitar of Quito Gato is given its own time in the spotlight. Chauvin’s violin might be the star of the show, but the b.c. section is definitely the driving force.

The sound quality is very vivid, and makes the ensemble sound much bigger than it is (five strings in the Four Seasons, plus basso). That said, achieving this has led to a deal of sniffing being quite audible. The booklet notes don’t add much to one’s knowledge of the works. Perhaps the most interesting point is Chauvin’s account of playing the Four Seasons with a group of dancers, and the effect it had on the playing of his ensemble: “we became fleet-footed, tightrope walkers, acrobats and, most important of all, much more attuned to each other and spontaneous”. Whether one subscribes to the first part, there is no doubting how attuned these players are to one another. You can see for yourself on YouTube, both about the playing and dancing.

Chauvin and his wonderful ensemble have demonstrated that there is still something new, and more importantly, worthwhile to say about works that already have many very fine recordings. It may not supplant Biondi’s recordings in my affections, but it definitely sits alongside them. A Recording of the Year without a shadow of a doubt.

David Barker

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