Antonio VIVALDI. Concerti per violino, La Boemia—Europa Galante, dir. & solo, Fabio Biondi—Naïve OP 30572—69:00—****:
Volume Six of the “Vivaldi Edition” of solo concertos for violin by Vivaldi is an opportunity to see another model. In this release by Fabio Biondi and his Europa Galante, we’re treated to a green cover with a female model, her hair festooned with an overly-large white flower. Think what you will of the covers, each of them are unique. And the covers have nothing to say about the music contained within.
This collection, entitled La boemia, takes its title from the fact that Vivaldi took a sojourn to Prague where he is believed to have written at least some of these concerti, late in his career, trying new ideas, at least we might think, to keep up with changing styles and cultural expectations. Biondi writes in the notes that it’s unsure if the concertos were written specifically for Prague, or perhaps, for audiences back home in Venice.
What’s interesting about naïve’s Vivaldi Edition (this release representing their fifty-seventh volume) is the label wasn’t content in using just one orchestra to record Vivaldi’s oeuvre. And there is an inherent risk in choosing different ensembles and soloists across their recordings; the interpretations will vary. Luckily, thus far at least, I have found this collection to offer high quality recordings and interpretations. The differences between performing groups offers diversity of artistic thought.
Biondi and Europa Galante are well-recorded and well-versed in the music of Vivaldi. It was good to have them as part of this project; their playing is consistent and in this release, the recorded sound is excellent. The orchestra is a small distance away and Biondi fills in the space between orchestra and audience with crystal-clear sound. This is my bias, but I like recordings that are captured closer, especially so with chamber-sized ensembles.
While Biondi’s reputation includes both fire and drama as ingredients in his performances, the histrionics across these six concerti (RV 282, 278, 380, 186, 288, and 330) is kept within check. The G minor concerto, RV 330, is a good example, in its opening first movement. A modern ensemble could most definitely exploit Vivaldi’s writing for more drama and fireworks; Biondi’s choices in tempo, dynamic extremes for the ensemble, and again for his own solos, are engaging without being overdone. His approach allows the music to speak for itself, but as Biondi almost always does, he adds rhythmic accents that have characterized his style for some time. This concerto is a particular challenge, too, for its high range in the solo part, and the performance is top-rate.
The E-minor concerto, RV 278, recalls Vivaldi’s interest in sea storms and could have been inserted into one of his operas. By the time the solo part arrives, the storm has calmed, but Biondi’s playing evokes the lilting crests of water at sea, or perhaps back home in Venice. A far-more dramatic reading of this concerto is to be found on the 2005 recording by Venice Baroque Orchestra (Concerto veneziano), led by Andrea Marcon and solo’ed by Giuliano Carmignola. I ended up much preferring the sound of Biondi and Europa Galante, but the earlier recording is no doubt worth an audition. Marcon and Carmignola are far more interested in exploiting drama within Vivaldi’s writing. While both interpretations are interesting, we’ll never know for sure how it may have sounded in Vivaldi’s time. So we have to be satisfied on how it sounds to us, now.
As an example, Biondi’s approach with the slow movement of the opening concerto, RV 282, is somewhat dry. The texture, as written, is spartan. Biondi captures our attention by relishing in his sound, there’s a real sweetness added as he warms the higher notes with a shimmer of vibrato. As an interpretation, it’s far removed from the style that became mainstream in the 1980s with Vivaldi recordings on period instruments. But I’d also point out that of the musical material Vivaldi provides, there is no interest, it seems, by Biondi to improvise or exploit the works for anything more, as is often now done with his opus eight collection of the Four Seasons. It is precisely the difference between the comparison I made in the preceding paragraph with Carmignola and Marcon. Amandine Beyer does offer a very different interpretation in her 2014 recording of the same concerto, on the album Teatro alla moda. And while it doesn’t go as far as Carmignola with interpretive liberties, it does serve to show the gamut of what can work in Vivaldi. While she completes the movement a minute ahead of Biondi, I too see the value in Biondi’s approach, giving the music its time.
To conclude, this “collection” of six concertos are not among Vivaldi’s most-oft recorded. As a set, it’s an excellent introduction to some of Vivaldi’s late solo concertos, which share writing in the higher range for the solo violin. Vivaldi’s invention is always ripe for different, yet equally-interesting interpretations. Biondi has approached these pieces with strong playing and the engineers from naïve have made a great recording.
I will say these may not be the most definitive readings. Beyond Beyer and Carmignola, versions of some of these concertos have been recorded elsewhere. But in every comparison, I’m proud to recognize the achievement of naïve’s engineers in capturing these works the most clearly, which helps to reveal the period instrument’s timbres in bright, aural light.
— Sebastian Herrera