Vivaldi: La Porte Delle Muse / Deuter, Waisman, Harmonie Universelle
VIVALDI Sinfonia for Strings in D, RV 125. Concertos for Strings: in c, RV 510; in d, RV 128; in d, RV 246; in F, RV 138; in g, RV 330; in g, RV 157; in C, RV 508 • Florian Deuter, Mónica Waisman (vn); Harmonie Universelle • ACCENT 24266 (61:31)
Was it really as “recently” as 1974 that we were all in awe of Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons? That we were thunderstruck by the precision with which this small group of vibratoless strings, with piercing winds, could play this over-familiar music, and make it sound so fresh? Yes, it was, and it is to the credit of pioneers like Harnoncourt that such groups as Harmonie Universelle have surpassed his early efforts tenfold.
In brief, this is a remarkable CD. To a certain extent, Stravinsky’s famous crack that Vivaldi didn’t write 500 concertos, but the same concerto 500 times, has a certain validity. His allegros are often at the same tempo, or at least within the same tempo range, and frequently use the same rhythms; yet even here, within the first two works on this set, one hears a different tempo and rhythm for the opening movement of the C-Minor concerto than for the D-Major sinfonia. More importantly—and I really do wish to stress this—Harmonie Universelle appears to be one of those early-music groups on the cutting edge of performance style. They relax the tempos a bit, not only in the slow movements but sometimes even in the fast ones. They allow their instruments to phrase with a consistent legato and not with the abrupt rhythmic chop of the ’70s. They employ a wide and sometimes subtle range of dynamics, inflecting the music with feeling when appropriate. In short, they know how to play music.
Indeed, as the CD progresses, we find ourselves becoming more and more engrossed in the musical message. Perhaps one reason for this subjective reaction is Harmonie Universelle’s choice of five minor-key concertos. Like Mozart, Vivaldi often sounded deeper and more emotionally involved in his minor-key works than in his major-key opuses. There is also a peculiar effect, of which only Vivaldi seemed to be the master, of creating a sort of undulating rhythm in the lower voices while the upper instruments weave around it. Such an effect is achieved in the first movement of the RV 128 concerto and, in this case, the more normal crisp Vivaldi tempo in the third movement almost seems like a release of tension.
In my review of this composer’s opera Orlando Furioso elsewhere in this issue, I was critical of his dramatic construction. In such long works, Vivaldi neither knew how to create an unfolding sense of drama, of tension and release, nor how to create a character through music specifically designed for each one’s personality, as Handel often did. He simply went from bravura aria to bravura aria, with an occasional slow piece thrown in for contrast, so that the result was more like a very long round-robin vocal recital in costume. Yet it is here, in these brief concertos, that one hears Vivaldi’s true genius. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that works such as these are so moving as well as intellectually engaging—not on the same level as a Buxtehude or a Bach, but certainly more engaging than any other Italian composer of concertos between his time and that of Giuseppe Martucci. Listen, for instance, to the magnificent way he builds the musical structure in the Largo of the second D-Minor concerto (RV 246), a melody that sounds deceivingly regular, yet which goes through several surprising modulations, traversing both major and minor chords, as if the musicians playing the harmony were listening to the solo violin line and inventing new modes of expression underneath it.
I also cannot say enough about Harmonie Universelle’s subtle use of texture. More than a few times, I was brought up short by the sheer sound of these works, by the way the players balance their instruments, by the way the Baroque guitar often sneaks through the texture of the bowed strings. This is going to sound a bit extreme, but Harmonie Universelle almost makes the music sound as if it is creating itself as it is played. Ah, but here is a clue to the ensemble’s excellence. Co-director Florian Deuter worked for several years with Reinhard Goebel in his magnificent Musica Antiqua Köln, which along with Gustav Leonhardt’s and Sigiswald Kuijken’s various ensembles was one of the pioneers in the “new” old-music movement. Like Harmonie Universelle, the members of Musica Antiqua Köln knew how to play music, not just notes on a page, and I urge all early-music lovers to seek out their recordings (often on Archiv) as well. Deuter’s violin-mate and co-leader, Mónica Waisman, studied the violin at Oberlin College before moving on to postgraduate studies in The Hague. Both of them learned well the musical lessons of Kuijken and other pioneers of true Baroque style since the mid 1980s, and it is their style and musical vision that shapes this group. Just listen, for instance, to the impassioned violin solo in the last movement of the first G-Minor concerto (RV 330). Does Baroque playing get any better than this? I don’t think so.
I cannot say enough goods things about this disc and, though I’d love to spend another 500 words extolling the virtues movement-by-movement in each concerto, I simply say to you, get this and listen. There are, of course, several competing versions of these concertos, particularly by La Magnifica Comunità in the massive boxed set on Brilliant Classics 94056, or Concerto Italiano on Naïve, but to be truthful, those performances, crisp and professional as they are, do not sound like these. You won’t hear Vivaldi much more creative than this, or much more creatively interpreted. This is, quite simply, a group of sheer genius.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Catalog Number: ACT24266
Composer: Antonio Vivaldi
Conductor: Florian Deuter
Orchestra/Ensemble: Harmonie Universelle
Performer: Florian Deuter, Monica Waisman