Masses, if not masters, respect Vivaldi

Local concert features composer's `Four Seasons' tomorrow night at church

July 29, 1999|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Posterity hasn't always tipped its cap respectfully in the direction of Antonio Vivaldi, the facile composer of the baroque era whose many works won him acclaim at the Austrian imperial court and in his native Italy.

The great Igor Stravinsky once dismissed Vivaldi as "a dull fellow who could compose the same form over and so many times over."

Our baroque-smitten record-buying public has overruled Stravinsky's curmudgeonly verdict. None of Vivaldi's 700-plus compositions is better loved than his pictorial set of four concertos for solo violin and string orchestra, "The Four Seasons."

The set has become one of the most popular works of the entire classical canon. It is adored not only by music lovers, but by the many great violinists who have headed for the recording studio to bring Vivaldi's winter blizzards, summer hailstorms, and murmuring spring breezes to life.

Local concertgoers will get to experience these and other seasonal pleasures tomorrow evening when violinist Daniel Heifetz and associates from his International Music Institute conclude their second summer in Annapolis by presenting Vivaldi's greatest hit at historic St. Anne's Church.

Violin duos and other baroque works, most notably the "Chaconne" of Thomasso Vitali, will also be performed at the concert, which begins at 8 p.m.

The audience will share the texts that inspired the work, poems that might have been penned by Vivaldi himself. "Spring has come and joyfully the birds welcome it with cheerful song," begins "La Primavera," the first of the concertos. Great poetry it's not, but the images certainly describe the chirpy warbling that opens the "Spring" concerto.

As the lush fountains, barking dogs, swarming flies, violent thunderstorms, and freezing winter rains pass in and out of Vivaldi's musical landscape, most listeners will be pleased to follow them with texts at the ready.

Noted for being a vain and nasty man whose study for the priesthood left him anything but holy, Vivaldi's fame had begun to recede by the time of his death in 1741. "If acute and rapid tones are evil," wrote the 18th-century music historian Charles Burney, "Vivaldi has much of the sin to answer for."

That view of Vivaldi as a one-dimensional purveyor of hustle-and-bustle would last well into our century.

But nifty music has a way of straightening accounts. These days, flute players, oboists, bassoonists, cellists and guitarists can't get enough of Vivaldi's tuneful, zippy concertos, while singers everywhere love his famous "Gloria."

Remember also that in Vivaldi's day a German composer thought enough of the Italian's music to appropriate some of it for his own use. His name: Johann Sebastian Bach.

Ticket information: 410- 268-8553.

CDs for all `Seasons'

A staggering array of choices awaits you in the CD bins should you decide to take a "Four Seasons" home with you for repeated listening. Indeed, you can find versions of Vivaldi's four celebrated violin concertos arranged for flute, recorder, solo guitar, guitar ensemble, two pianos, brass quintet and even the harp.

To get to know the work, I'd recommend hearing it in its original format for violin and string orchestra. But which of those versions? "

Le Quattro Stagioni" comes in three interpretive "flavors": a small orchestra playing modern instruments, a small ensemble performing on 18th-century instruments or the lush, Technicolor versions employing a larger complement of symphonic strings. It works in all three.

For the intimate approach on modern instruments, try Sir Neville Marriner with violinist Alan Loveday on the new Penguin label. Or you might listen to one of the Italian chamber orchestras that did so much to reclaim Vivaldi's good name in the 1950s and '60s. Try Renato Fasano's "Virtuosi di Roma" on an bargain-priced EMI double-disc filled out by other concertos by Vivaldi and Corelli, or the always delightful "I Musici" on the Philips label.

For the more astringent sounds of antique fiddles, the best version by far comes from soloist Nils-Erik Sparf and Sweden's Drottningholm Ensemble on the BIS label. This work is bristling with energy.

A mellower "authentic" approach features Salvatore Accardo playing each of the concertos on a different Stradivarius violin. (Philips).

For the plummier versions, go for Itzhak Perlman on EMI, Gidon Kremer on Deutsche Grammophon, or the old magician, Leopold Stokowski with violinist Hugh Bean, on London.

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