James Ehnes’ New Vivaldi Recording

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Vivaldi’s Four Seasons may be the most recorded piece ever written, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for another great new addition to the catalogue. The newest contribution comes from Canadian-born violinist James Ehnes who has just released a Four Seasons disc with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on the Onyx Classics label. It’s always fun to hear different approaches to these famous Vivaldi concertos, some using baroque instruments and performance practice. Here, you’ll hear a full-toned, modern approach to the music. The recording also features Fritz Kreisler’s arrangement of Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata, as well as Leclair’s “Tambourin” Sonata, accompanied by pianist Andrew Armstrong.

Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764) was the greatest French violinist of the eighteenth century, “the Corelli of France.” Listen to the rich array of tonal colors and the intimate conversation which takes place between the violin and piano in the third movement of the Leclair, Sarabanda: Largo:

Leclair’s Op. 9, No. 3 violin sonata gets its nickname from this fun, folk dance-inspired final movement:

Finally, just in time for winter, here is the icy chill of the first movement of “Winter” from The Four Seasons:

Three Pieces for the Beginning of Summer

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Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, 
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade 
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, 
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

-William Shakespeare, Sonnet 18

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: Summer

Let’s begin with violinist Janine Jansen’s exciting approach to Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. This performance features an unusual edge-of-your seat passion and fire. The dramatic effects of Vivaldi’s music come to life in a way that makes the music feel fresh, as if it was just written:

Glazunov’s “The Seasons:” Summer

Next, let’s listen to an excerpt from Alexander Glazunov’s lushly romantic 1899 ballet score, The Seasons. At the beginning of the clip, we hear the triumphant moment when spring turns to summer. It’s soaring music that deserves to be heard more often. This recording features the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy:

Heifetz Plays “Summertime”

Jascha Heifetz’s transcription of George Gershwin’s Summertime from the opera Porgy and Bess is a timeless gem. Here is Heifetz’s recording:

Recomposing Vivaldi’s “Winter”

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As we await today’s meteorological prediction from the groundhog, let’s enjoy the icy sonic chill of “Winter” from The Four Seasons, Vivaldi’s collection of violin concertos composed around 1720. This piece can sound radically different from one performance to another, depending on choices of tempi and style. The concerto’s programatic elements remain: the orchestra’s frigid opening ponticello (a raspy sound created by playing as close to the bridge as possible), flying spiccato bowing suggesting pellets of frozen precipitation hitting a hard surface. The final movement drifts off into the solitude of a bleak, desolate winter landscape.

Here is Gidon Kremer’s 1981 performance with the English Chamber Orchestra:

Vivaldi Remixed

In Baroque performances, ornamentation added an element of spontaneity. The notes on the page sometimes became a blueprint for improvisation, similar to chord progressions for a jazz musician. German-born British composer Max Richter (b. 1966) has pushed this tradition even further with his Recomposed Four Seasons (2012). Vivaldi’s music becomes the raw material for a new piece rooted in the looping repetition of minimalism and electronic dance music. Fragments of the original composition emerge and find new lives of their own. It’s a musical conversation spanning three hundred years. Listen to the complete work here. Pay attention to the way the music slowly and gradually develops. If you feel inspired, share your thoughts about the music in the thread below.

Here is Daniel Hope with the Orchestra L’arte del Mondo in 2013:

As a bonus, here is Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” and Written on the Sky from Blue Notebooks (2004). Also listen to Luminous from the soundtrack of the 2011 film Perfect Sense (The Last Word) and Rainlightcomposed for Random International’s Rain Room, a 2012 art instillation at London’s Barbican Centre.

As Winter Turns to Spring…

For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, winter is slowly beginning to loosen its grip.  As we look forward to warmer temperatures and longer days, let’s enjoy music from Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.

Written in 1723, The Four Seasons is a collection of violin concertos, each depicting a different season of the year.  A concerto is a composition, usually in three movements (Fast, Slow, Fast) written for a solo instrument (or instruments) and orchestra.

Vivaldi was one of the greatest violinists of his time.  He was influential in both the development of the violin and the establishment of the concerto as a musical genre. Vivaldi, Corelli, Veracini, Tartini and others in Italy around the beginning of the eighteenth century wrote music that extended the range and technical possibilities of the violin and incorporated “cantabile melodies, brilliant figuration, expression and dramatic effects [which] strongly influenced the course of music in other countries.”*

As you listen to these performances, consider how Vivaldi musically captures the atmosphere of winter and spring.  To help performers interpret the music, Vivaldi wrote sonnets in the score before each concerto.  Listen to the icy sounds in Winter and notice how the bows are used to create these sounds.  In Spring you’ll hear the violins depicting bird songs.  Pay attention to the back and forth dialogue between the orchestra and the solo violin.  This is part of what gives a concerto so much drama.

I have included two great performances.  The first features violinist Julia Fischer and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.  She gives a beautiful, twenty-first century performance of the piece.

You might have fun comparing Fischer’s interpretation with the second set of clips, featuring a really exciting performance by Giuliano Carmignola and the Venice Baroque Orchestra.  Although no one knows exactly how this music was played in Vivaldi’s time, this performance attempts to be more historically accurate.  You will notice that the bows are shaped differently than the modern bow and the sound produced is quite different.  You will also hear ornamental notes added, especially in the slow movement of Winter.  In Vivaldi’s time this kind of freedom and sense of improvisation was common.

After listening to these clips, I think you’ll be amazed that the same music can sound so different depending on the concept of the performer.  This is an aspect of music that we should celebrate.

In my next post, in the middle of the month, we’ll listen to an amazing piece written in the twentieth century that was inspired by Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

Antonio Vivaldi

The Four Seasons…Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

Concerto No. 4 in F minor, Op. 8, RV 297, “L’inverno” (Winter)

Allegro non molto
Largo
Allegro 

Concerto No. 1 in E major, Op. 8, RV 269, “La primavera” (Spring)

Allegro
Largo
Allegro Pastorale 

Julia Fischer and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields:

(*Violin Technique and Performance Practice in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries, Robin Stowell, pg.1)