By Thomas May
The notorious old quip that Antonio Vivaldi wrote the same concerto 500 times was never anything more than a cheap witticism. A similarly cynical attitude might be applied to the fact that the same work has been recorded hundreds of times to date (and counting). And it would be just as misleading. Not only is The Four Seasons atypical among Vivaldi’s corpus of concertos, the work’s musical substance is rich enough to accommodate a remarkable spectrum of radically differing interpretations.
“It’s mind-blowing that this music, which is everywhere today on every device, had to be rediscovered. In 1950, there were only two recordings—and look at the number we have now,” says Anne Akiko Meyers, referring to the first commercial releases featuring Bernardino Molinari and Louis Kaufman (made in 1942 and 1947, respectively).
Like several of her peers, the violinist put off adding her own contribution to the Four Seasons discography until she was certain the circumstances were just right. Meyers notes that she stands “in awe of Vivaldi’s genius”—so much so that she wanted to amplify it with the creation of another
Italian genius. She therefore made her account the occasion for the 21st-century recording debut of the most expensive violin in the world: the 1741 “ex-Vieuxtemps” Guarneri del Gesù (reportedly valued at over $16 million), which was donated to her on perpetual loan.
It struck Meyers that her Guarneri was made the same year that Vivaldi died. “Here were these two northern Italian gentlemen who likely never met, and their genius was forgotten for centuries.” Much as the Vivaldi renaissance was instigated by advocates who came along after a long period of neglect, she mentions Paganini’s role in reviving interest in Guarneri’s instruments.
Indeed, new discoveries have continued to pour forth, and a far more sophisticated appreciation of Vivaldi’s prolific output—a legacy hardly limited to those hundreds of concertos—has emerged since the mid-20th century. Yet the public persists in its fixation on The Four Seasons. According to the Baroque keyboard virtuoso Rinaldo Alessandrini, this is at least in part because these concertos “were imposed on audiences when early music was being discovered. Our chamber orchestras got used to playing The Four Seasons everywhere and made it the core of their repertoire.”
Still another reason for the enduring fascination of The Four Seasons has to do with the work’s association with scene painting—not as merely vague evocations of each season but because of the score’s intricate links to the imagery of the four accompanying sonnets (possibly penned by the composer himself). Alessandrini explains that The Four Seasons “is one of the most precise Vivaldi scores because of this use of poetic texts”—a facet that has even had negative consequences when performers have tried too hard “to underline the meaning of the texts compared to the music, sometimes creating a kind of monster. More and more, I am convinced that we should keep the music unharnessed and balanced.”
“My strategy was to make all the elements of nature sound as authentic as possible in my imagination,” says Meyers. Instead of taking the route of historically informed performance, she focused specifically on the uniqueness of her “ex-Vieuxtemps” and how it could elicit the palette as well as passions inscribed into Vivaldi’s score. “No studio recordings had been made using the instrument, so that was virgin territory I could explore. I wanted to show its incredible range of color, and this music is ideally suited for that because Vivaldi is very improvisatory.”
What keeps the music so appealing, for Meyers, is the combination of its “singability” with such vividly drawn depictions of the real world: “a thunderstorm, a feeling of drunkenness, even three different kinds of bird calls. Vivaldi works in the sounds of a cuckoo, finch, and turtledove—and there’s even a barking dog. The fact that all of these can be conjured by your bow is extraordinary.”
My strategy was to make all the elements of nature sound as authentic as possible in my imagination.
—Anne Akiko Meyers
Sarah Chang also waited for the right moment in her career—“even though my record label would ask me to do The Four Seasons at every single meeting! It took me a while because I wanted to make sure that I would have something to say. But Vivaldi gives you a lot of license to put your own stamp on the music and almost begs you to add on your own ornamentations.”
Chang views The Four Seasons as occupying a unique niche for both performers and audiences: a specifically Baroque score, it has accommodated perspectives beyond Vivaldi’s era to the point that The Four Seasons is now “such a mainstream piece that you recognize it even if you’re not a musician. I love that its reach is so universal,” she says. “It’s one of those masterpieces that stands the test of time and languages and cultures. I’ve found that Vivaldi’s music is just as popular when I tour in Asia.”
To find her way into the iconic work, Chang spent a couple of years touring and playing The Four Seasons (also on a Guarneri, as it happens) “in every single format you could imagine: full orchestra with conductor, chamber ensemble with and without a conductor” before she committed to making her own recorded interpretation with the conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. “I realized that I am not a Baroque violinist and that, even though I have built my career working with so many amazing maestros, I like the freedom of not having to rely on someone with a stick in front of me.”
Chang points out that The Four Seasons cast a spell not just on listeners but on other composers as well. For her upcoming fall tour with her hand-picked ensemble of favorite musicians, she plans to reprise a favorite programming idea that places the concertos alongside—and sometimes intermixed with—Astor Piazzolla’s tango nuevo-inflected Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.
For Rachel Podger, approaching The Four Seasons with the experience she had accumulated as a Baroque violinist opened up fresh insights into such familiar music—especially after her landmark recording of Bach’s solo Sonatas and Partitas. Podger had previously released accounts of Vivaldi’s La stravaganza concertos and, with her Brecon Baroque ensemble, of the complete L’estro armonico concertos before she felt the time had come to tackle Le quattro stagioni.
By playing The Four Seasons as chamber music, with one player on a part, Podger discovered that Vivaldi’s sound world “feels like a completely different machine than with an orchestra. You have more contrast with
an orchestra between the tutti and solo and can vary things in terms of texture in a different way. But with the chamber version, you get color contrasts and can hear the diction, the shapes as they are formed on the strings. We could take risks in performance and on the recording that wouldn’t be possible with a bigger outfit in terms of rubato, timing, inflection, or nuance.”
Rinaldo Alessandrini says that it’s important to recall that unlike the vast majority of his music, The Four Seasons was actually published during Vivaldi’s lifetime—in Amsterdam in 1725, as part of the Op. 8 collection titled Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (“The Contest Between Harmony and Invention”), which included eight additional violin concertos. Parts of The Four Seasons maintained a vestigial presence in the public memory through various appropriations. J.S. Bach, whose admiration of Vivaldi’s concerto practice should be enough to dismiss the past putdowns of the Italian, recycled one of its tunes in a cantata, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (the philosopher-composer) made a flute arrangement of Spring.
“It was normal to print music that was thought to be good for the market,” Alessandrini explains—and marketable for more typical violinists. “Some Vivaldi violin concertos that were preserved in libraries are more extroverted and strange and full of original ideas but were probably thought not to be useful for normal soloists.”
The extreme familiarity of The Four Seasons, for Alessandrini, is precisely what makes up a major part of the work’s challenge today—especially in his native Italy. “The main problem with the work is that we know it through hundreds of recordings and concerts played by friends. So approaching it is an interesting challenge when it comes to making our contribution to a very precise score.”
Performing with modern instruments is perfectly legitimate, he says. Where care really needs to be taken is in preserving the “chemistry of this music. I think the best chemistry is when the violin is the protagonist and has an evident theatrical attitude that is very stimulating for the orchestra. Music in Italy in the 18th century was mostly theatrical—even the music composed for the churches.”
This theatrical impulse, says Alessandrini, responded to the audience’s need to feel emotions that transcended everyday life.
Rachel Podger also underlines the connection to the world of opera and the stage. To prepare for her recording, she took up a study of Vivaldi’s opera scores as well, pointing to the intense theatricality inherent in these concertos. But contemporary audiences may be more likely to want to compare them to the immersive experience of cinema.
“Vivaldi does show his incredible inventiveness in his other compositions as well, but it is quite spectacular here. Who would have thought to lose the bass line, for example, just when the bird calls are taking flight? Using gut strings adds to the rustic effect. So much of this piece is about experiences of nature”—expressed with a kind of realism—“that’s almost like a Hollywood movie.”
‘The Four Seasons’ on Record
The recordings of The Four Seasons referenced in this story, along with some other suggested accounts (listed in chronological order of release date):
• Bernardino Molinari, cond. (1942) (Cetra; reissued by Ermitage)
• Louis Kaufman, violin; Concert Hall Chamber Orchestra, Henry Swoboda, cond. (1947) (reissued on Naxos; Kaufman also appeared as the soloist on the first complete recording of Op. 8)
• I Musici’s debut recording; Felix Ayo, violin; their first of many accounts (1955) (Phillips)
• Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields with Alan Loveday and Neville Marriner (1969) (Decca)
• The English Concert with Simon Standage and Trevor Pinnock (1982) (Deutsche Grammophon)
• Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin; Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. (1987) (Deutsche Grammophon)
• Gil Shaham, violin; Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (1994) (Deutsche Grammophon)
• Fabio Biondi, violin; Europa Galante (1998) (Opus 111)
• Concerto Italiano, Rinaldo Alessandrini, cond. (2003) (Opus 111)
• Sarah Chang, violin; Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (2007) (Warner)
• Boston Baroque with Christina Day Martinson and Martin Pearlman (2009) (Telarc)
• Anne Akiko Meyers, violin; English Chamber Orchestra, David Lockington, cond. (2014) (eOne)
• Rachel Podger, violin; Brecon Baroque (2018) (Channel Classics)