Antonio Vivaldi is probably the first composer I ever became aware of, since his suite of violin concertos known as The Four Seasons was probably the first record I ever listened to. Of course, much to my surprise and delight, his music seems to have changed substantially since I was a kid. I know that’s a weird statement to make regarding a composer who’s been dead since 1741, but it’s true, as it has to do with the way baroque music used to be interpreted twenty-odd years ago and the way it’s being interpreted and recorded now.
When I was little, recordings of Vivaldi or Telemann or Bach were, more often than not, transcriptions of the original scores, meant to be played by an entire orchestra. However, the symphonic orchestra we know today wasn’t around back then, at least not as such, and whilst concertos were a musical form meant to showcase the brilliance of one particular instrument and its respective player against a backdrop of other, more subdued, instruments, the contrast wasn’t usually as dramatic as, for example, Beethoven’s piano concertos would have us believe. Many concertos of that era are supposed to be played by one soloing instrument and a small host of other musicians, in a formula more closely resembling chamber music than large-scale symphonic displays of power.
The first time I heard Vivaldi’s Cello Concertos (well, at least some of them), they were rendered in that more mighty version Romanticism ended up imposing on Classicism in Modern times. It’s no surprise I associated them with a Gothic Romantic novel I was reading at the time, a wretched little book I picked off the shelves of some forgotten second-hand bookstore in my town. I mentioned this book before in these posts, it’s called Melmoth The Wanderer, by Robert Maturin. The serious, urgent, enthralling mood these concertos project, especially those written in minor key, seemed then to work wonderfully with the dramatic, tense, torturous confessions of the tormented, ever-so-romantic characters of the novel. However, hearing these same concertos now, in a more baroque arrangement, doubtlessly much closer to the original intent, that feeling seems to unravel at the seams, the mood shifting slightly, in favor of a more rational, contemplative state of mind.
I never would’ve thought versatility to be an essential defining trait of Baroque music – ornate, imaginative, sensual, yes, but also very structured, respectful of form and phrasing, born in an age when the idea of interpreting the message of the artist would’ve been a simpler task, given the very artist’s desire to make himself understood by taking advantage of an agreed upon code of conduct and expression. And yet, faced with Vivaldi’s Cello Concertos, I get the feeling that this music is in no way poorer in connotations and complex shades of barely deciphered meaning than any of the impressionist composers’ works of which I am so partial to. Here, form is not a device which acts like a crutch or a form of support, it is a complex outline which the composer uses to his own expressive ends, splendidly.
Famous playwright Carlo Goldoni wrote in his memoirs that Vivaldi seemed to him as mediocre, compared to other true titans of his age. This is a statement which is hard to take at face value, given the general climate of intrigue and very personal jabs and grudges animating the art world in that period, but it made me shudder nonetheless. Vivaldi had a way of using solo instruments, of understanding musical texture and color and superimposing different such textures which is unmatched! It’s hard for me to believe that Goldoni was right in his assessment… but what if he was? What if the works of those far superior composers active in those years, which he doesn’t name, are lost to us? I suppose I must have a form of faith in a sort of natural selection of art – because if that’s the case, than Vivaldi is rightfully validated by his works’ very survival, regardless of personal opinion. In any case, I believe these concerts to be really quite beautiful and moving. Enjoy, and I’ll see you soon!