Vivaldi: Le quattro stagione, concerti, Il grosso mogul, Il riposo, L’Amoroso. Rachel Podger, Brecon Baroque—Channel Classics CCS SA 40318—76:00 [Distr. by Pias] ****:

I’ve been following the historically-informed performance movement for most of my life, coming to collect recordings by Hogwood and Pinnock in the late 1980s as a teen. Rachel Podger came on the scene as those ensembles began to transition, first leading the English Concert, then going on to find success in chamber music. She’d go on to concertize with Andrew Manze, another one of the second generation of British baroque violinists, and more recently, she organizes a Baroque music festival and leads her own ensemble, Brecon Baroque. Brecon, as it turns out, is the name of her hometown in Wales.

This new recording follows Podger’s other Vivaldi projects, including L’estro armonico (op. 3), La Stravaganza (op. 4), and La Cetra (op. 9). The opus four and nine editions of Vivaldi have been recorded by HIP ensembles, but their availability are fewer in company compared to the available recordings of the Four Seasons from opus 8. That being said, recording Vivaldi’s Four Seasons becomes a tricky enterprise for the modern-day violinist, akin to Coca-Cola offering another version of Coke or another bottled water product. What makes this one different?

I’ve often viewed the recording in 1989 by Nigel Kennedy of the Four Seasons as the torch-bearer for how musicians and the record companies would deal with the recording of this popular quartet of concertos. While not a HIP-recording, Kennedy used a small chamber orchestra and a real departure from tradition. Many recordings made after Kennedy’s followed suit, reinventing the interpretations of these concertos in novel and sometimes interesting ways.

Another approach is to mesh the Vivaldian concertos with other music that uses the seasons as an inspiration. Not that long ago, I attended a concert with Venice Baroque of the Four Seasons coupled with seasons-inspired music for violin and orchestra by Philip Glass. And while I know some readers may have had enough of the Four Seasons, audiences still must buy them up.  So in listening to Brecon Baroque’s take on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, they appear on the surface to be traditionalists rather than iconoclasts. The recording features the four concertos alongside other violin concertos by Vivaldi: Il Riposo, L’armoroso, and the most athletic, Il Grosso Mogul, with a small ensemble of one person per part.

I pulled from my collection two other recordings, informed by historical performance practice, for comparison. In crowded company, it is worth comparing interpretations.

The first comes from 1982: Simon Standage, violinist, with the English Concert, directed by Trevor Pinnock. The recording is remarkably clear and the ensemble is a slave, it seems, to the metronome. Compared to the Podger recording, the Pinnock recording too offers both harpsichord and theorbo in the continuo section. With Podger, both these continuo instruments play a far more vocal role. Pinnock’s recording balance favors the soloist, Simon Standage, as far more forward in the recording. Finally, The English Concert’s string section outnumbers the players in Brecon Baroque.

My reference recording for Vivaldi’s Quattro Stagioni is by Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante (Virgin Veritas), his second recording of the seasons, including all twelve concertos from opus 8. Biondi’s interpretation is closer to Nigel Kennedy’s, in the use of pyrotechnics, looseness of rhythm, and inventive sparkle. Europa Galante also uses more strings than Brecon Baroque. Like Podger’s ensemble, Biondi employs a rich continuo team.

The comparisons reveal to me my preference for a larger ensemble for the string section. While Podger’s small ensemble technically works, the dynamic variation between tutti and solo, ripieno and solo, is more differentiated with a larger ensemble. Both Biondi’s and Pinnock’s versions reveal this advantage.

The comparison also reveals a difference in balance between the recordings. In Podger’s recording, both the harpsichord and theorbo play a very vocal role in the overall ensemble sound, sounding to my ears closer to the microphones than either the soloist or the remainder of the ensemble. Similarly, the first violin sometimes emerges closer and louder than the soloist.

In terms of interpretive creativity, Podger is somewhere in between the world of Standage and Biondi. Podger is an extremely good player of the violin, on equal footing, at least technically, with Biondi. Podger as violinist and director offers us a far more musical interpretation than Pinnock’s earlier recording, but doesn’t offer, in the role of soloist, or as director, a compelling original take on these concerti. Being superficially original or different in itself is a strange requirement to bring to a performance of music. Podger’s recording is solid and polished. Yet, I go back: what makes it different? Podger and team chose not to compete. I can admire that (for not making these concerti into something akin to Frankenstein concertos) but also understand how the modern consumer may want something different from the interpretation to invest in yet another copy of the Four Seasons.

Among the other concertos Podger offers on the disc, I liked her reading of the Grosso Mogul concerto best, and specifically, her cadenza. Other recordings in my collection offer the bigger sound this concerto seems to warrant, a true showpiece in the same league as the Four Seasons. This chamber version works, to be sure. But my preference is for the larger sound, still within a historically-informed sound world.

Somewhat contemporary to Podger’s recording has been one on video appearing on YouTube featuring Shunske Sato with the Netherlands Bach Society (see Bachvereniging OFFICIAL – YouTube). Quite different from his own recording on CD with Concerto Köln, the Netherlands ensemble under Sato’s direction breaks yet new ground in interpretation with which I immediately found favor. Podger’s recording, by comparison, is quieter and more reserved.

The new recording by Rachel Podger is very much consistent with her earlier recordings. There is technical polish and a definite musical point of view. Brecon Baroque does offer remarkable color for a small ensemble, and their recording will no doubt appeal to those who favor a traditional, yet historically-informed approach.

My own preferences, however, tend to favor original ideas in performance, too ensconced within a historical framework. Onofri, Biondi, and now Sato have offered us interpretations that push at the boundaries of the music left to us over the ages. Alongside to a bigger orchestral sound, I prefer their drama—but with all company included—there is much to applaud.

—Sebastian Herrera