Notes and Editorial Reviews
Concertos for Strings: in C,
Arte dei Suonatori (period instruments)
BIS 1845 (61:53)
This appears to be a follow-up, though on a different label, to Arte dei Suonatori’s Alpha disc of Vivaldi flute concertos reviewed in
34:5. Before that, there was a disc (also on Alpha) of C. P. E. Bach’s flute concertos, reviewed in 33:2. Both releases received rave, must-buy recommendations. Even earlier, James Reel reviewed the ensemble’s op. 12 set of Handel’s concerti grossi in 32:4 and, in 27:2, Reel called Arte dei Suonatori’s
by Vivaldi “the
of a lifetime.” I haven’t heard the Handel or Vivaldi that Reel reviewed, but based on my assessment of the ensemble’s Vivaldi and C. P. E. Bach flute discs, there’s no question in my mind that there’s not another period-instrument band in existence that beats the Arte dei Suonatori in this repertoire. The playing of this group falls into the exceptional category.
Vivaldi’s concertos for strings—nearly 50 of them—are nowhere as numerous or as popular as his concertos featuring one or more solo instruments. In fact, the concertos exclusively for a body of strings with neither solo parts nor divided into smaller and larger sections in the manner of the concerto grosso recall the somewhat older concerto à quattro format from around the mid to latter part of the 17th century. In truth, these concertos are not representative of Vivaldi’s best work, and while in no way questioning the composer’s overall standing, I think this type of concerto, albeit with a fifth string voice added, is better represented by the set of 12 concerti à cinque, op. 5, by Albinoni, published in 1707.
Vivaldi is believed to have written most, if not all, of his string concertos sometime between the 1720s and 1730s, which for him is relatively late. So we might legitimately ask why at this late date he would return to a form that was no longer much in vogue, especially given our understanding of how progressive a composer he was. The answer may lie in the Occam’s razor principle: the hypothesis that makes the fewest assumptions is generally the correct one. The years in which Vivaldi wrote these concertos just happen to coincide exactly with his return to Venice and renewed association with the Ospedale della Pietà from 1723 to 1740. I’d be willing to wager that the concertos were composed to give the full string contingent of his all-girl band something to do; and by full string contingent, I mean that he would have expected them all to participate. These works were not written to be played one to a part.
Arte dei Suonatori employs three first violins and three seconds, plus a double bass and a harpsichord for the continuo. A bit disappointingly, however, only a single viola and a single cello are employed, resulting in a degree of imbalance between the upper and lower voices. The criticism is no reflection on the truly outstanding technical execution and highly musical instincts of these players, but I continue to maintain that with a very large number of string-playing young ladies under his direction—perhaps as many as 40 or more (the remainder of the documented 60 would have played wind and other instruments)—Vivaldi would not have asked more than 30 of them to sit on the sidelines while only nine of them played.
If you’ve ever watched a video of a congress of Suzuki students sawing away at Vivaldi’s A-Minor Violin Concerto—perhaps 50 or 60 of them all at once—I really think that’s what it must have been like at Vivaldi’s Ospedale. It defies common sense to imagine that he would have written these string concertos for just a handful of players when his job was to keep five dozen pairs of hands from becoming idle.
In any case, the days of the larger chamber ensembles I grew up with, like I Musici, I Solisti Veneti, and I Solisti di Zagreb, are probably gone for now, the economics of our day dictating smaller, cost-conscious groups, and no amount of my railing against these shrunken forces or nostalgia for the bigger-band sound of earlier times is going to bring it back. These things tend to go in cycles, and I’m fairly confident (as well as hopeful) that sooner or later a consensus will reemerge that the current minimalist approach to the performance of Baroque music is ill-advised.
Meanwhile, channeling the sentiment of a former Secretary of Defense who said, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want,” I would have to say that among the music world’s present-day downsized armies, Poland’s Arte dei Suonatori is the best equipped to take on all comers. I’ve not heard another period-instrument ensemble in this repertoire that matches the combination of executional discipline, rhythmic thrust, spirited verve, and feeling of freshness that Arte dei Suonatori brings to Vivaldi’s music. For the here and now then, this is the best there is, so, strongly recommended to all Vivaldi lovers.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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