Notes and Editorial Reviews
You know how animal conservationists say that it's essential to cull the over-populated deer herds every so often so as to make life better and less competitive for the remaining animals? Well, this is similar to what I do every two or three years to my persistently-proliferating stock of Vivaldi Four Seasons recordings. The active catalog now lists more than 200 versions; about a dozen is the limit of both my shelf-space and sensibility. So this new one arrives and, well, it's Joshua Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, so it's likely to be worth a listen, and perhaps a place on that already over-populated shelf.
Of course, Sony already has a perfectly wonderful
period-instrument Four Seasons with Giuliano Carmignola, and then there's the very fine modern-instrument Anne-Sophie Mutter rendition on DG, with an identical coupling no less, which like this one weirdly neglects to mention the Tartini sonata on the disc front cover or spine(!)--and we've yet to touch on other respectable versions by Fabio Biondi (Virgin) or Gil Shaham (also DG)--and no doubt you've already got your own favorite(s).
Ultimately none of this matters. If you're a Joshua Bell and/or Vivaldi fan, or if you've just arrived on planet Earth and therefore haven't yet acquired your first Four Seasons recording, you only have to consider whether these performances are distinctive and authoritative and exciting enough to move them from the store shelves to yours. The answer is unequivocally "yes".
Bell is one of the more consistently tasteful, sensitive, anti-self-indulgent violin virtuosos on the scene today, and as such he delivers these inherently flashy concertos with a refreshingly straightforward approach that scorches and sizzles without ever falling prey to pyrotechnic vulgarity. Bell and his first-rate partners--bravo to harpsichordist John Constable!--just make beautiful music out of Vivaldi's conceptions, and their efforts are as gripping as we expect from musicians of this caliber. The final, hair-raising Allegro of "Spring"--brought to vivid, room-filling life by the superb engineering--is just one example. Aficionados of the Tartini sonata will be interested to hear Bell's own little cadenza along with his occasional personal ornamentations, which confirm this performance's distinctive character as well as Bell's technical and interpretive artistry.
This music is so familiar and its technical demands so mainstream these days that any of today's better-trained violinists could deliver a respectable rendition--of any Vivaldi concerto for that matter. But Bell's assured performances and exceptionally vibrant sonics move this recording into the top tier--and I'm already eying my shelf to see which current occupant will have to be sacrificed.
--David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com
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