Review: Antonio Vivaldi is a musical man for all seasons, but leaves are turning on Nigel Kennedy's blockbuster album
Here are two very different takes on Vivaldi -- one new, one 20 years old. I'll start with the old one, because it's a biggie:
Vivaldi, The Four Seasons, 20th Anniversary Edition CD & DVD (EMI)
*** (Out of 4)
If you're 35 or older, chances are pretty good that you've heard at least snippets of Nigel Kennedy's recording of The Four Seasons, an undyingly popular four-violin-concerto suite by Baroque-era mastermind Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). Released in 1989, Kennedy's recording with the English Chamber Orchestra has sold more than 3 million copies. It was everywhere. It made Vivaldi a star again. It also made Kennedy into a star -- something he took way too personally (but that's another story).
To celebrate its 20th anniversary, EMI has re-released that album with a companion DVD (from a 1990 TV special), where Kennedy introduces each concerto before playing it. (Click on the album image for details)
If you've never bought your own copy of The Four Seasons, this is a fine place to start, but you can do better. Kennedy's playing is fiery, assured. He goes for dramatic emphasis wherever he can. The little orchestra sounds nice. But, two decades on, after just about every modern-instrument string orchestra has adopted some of the spikier bowing techniques from period-instrument groups, parts of this recording are sounding dated, lacking a larger-scale bounce and the sonic texture that the best period-instrument players can muster.
If you want to support local talent, you can't go wrong with Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra's 1992 recording. If you want extra-spicy period instruments, there's Il giardino armonico's version, of the same vintage.
My favourite modern-instrument recording is a three-year-old effort by with Cho-Liang Lin and New York ensemble Sejong. It's more engaging than Kennedy's, there's more listening, including the amazingly dramatic "Storm at Sea" Violin Concerto, and, because it's from budget label Naxos, it's cheaper.
Here's Kennedy playing the "Allegro" from "Winter," which has some of the recording's finest work:
Vivaldi, Sonate e concerti (ATMA Classique)
*** (out of 4)
Two great Québécois soloists -- cellist Bernard Loiselle and organist Vincent Boucher -- team up for a satisfying selection of seven popular works adapted for organ and cello (Vivaldi didn't write for this specific combination). There are two of the Cello Sonatas, two keyboard concertos, the opening movement to his setting of the Stabat Mater and "Domine Deus" from the Gloria. (Click on the album image for details.)
Loiselle's velvet-wrapped cello playing is an expressive and technical treat, while Boucher gets some very nice sounds out of a grand tracker organ built by Karl Wilhelm for St. Matthias Church in Westmount, one of Montreal's many musical treasures. (I frequently sang with the men-and-boys choir in that Anglican church while I was a student at McGill.)
The two performers are a beautiful match. My only reservation about this otherwise excellent album is the sound balance between the organ and cello. It often sounds as if they were recorded on two separate tracks, even though they probably weren't. It's the challenge of miking two very different kinds of instruments in a large, acoustically live space.