VIVALDI: The Four Seasons; Three Violin Concertos – Amandine Beyer, violin/ Gli Incogniti – Zig Zag 80803, 70 mins. *****:

It’s amazing what you can learn from a new recording of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” The music’s been heard a million times by millions of people in all sorts of contexts: movies, weddings, commercials and, over and over again, on classical radio. In fact, it’s probably been heard much less in concert than in all other places. It’s definitely set the standard for classical music which transcends its genre without shedding it. It’s been a staple of the record catalogues since Louis Kaufman recorded it in 1950, and won the Grand Prix du Disque in the process.

If you’re of a certain age, you might have actually listened to marginally “authentic” vinyl versions in the 1950s by I Musici (Philips) or a reduced Philharmonia conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini (EMI). This was followed through the decades by increasingly more authentic versions from Neville Marriner (Argo), Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Teldec), Trevor Pinnock (DG) and Fabio Bondi (Opus 111), the last three playing on original instruments.

In 1993, Il Giardino armonico’s recording on Teldec ratcheted up the performance stakes. It had the violent sound and extrovert personality of a rock’n’roll version, complete with outlandish instrumental devices and reckless dynamic contrasts. Later in the decade, Giuliano Carmignola, first with Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca (now available on Brilliant) and later with his Baroque Orchestra of Venice (Sony), set forth more elegant though not much less charismatic Venetian versions of Vivaldi’s vision, its breezes and poetry, its sweetness and sensuality.

Now comes Amandine Beyer and her Gli Incogniti ensemble with a version based on important research: “Although we took as our reference the version printed by La Cène in 1725, we consulted an often neglected source, a manuscript at the University of Manchester which offers extremely intriguing variants, especially as regards articulation and unusual chromatic and harmonic colors, shedding new light on certain passages.”

In addition to an occasional passage that sounds totally new, an exhilarating sense of balance, breathtaking bow control and accuracy of intonation, the colors and nuances of Beyer’s playing are echoed by her orchestra in a partnership that may never have been equalled on disc. Check out the sweet playing of the continuo in the Largo of “Spring” and then dance with the nymphs and shepherds in the Allegro. See how the remarkable storm of “Summer” is not a typhoon but a storm followed by nourishing rain.

In sum, it is an interpretation that depends as much on subtlety of tone color and texture as it does on dramatic pacing and the innate beauty and emotional variety of Vivaldi’s music. This is particularly noticeable when you listen at higher levels on speakers that are able to capture what is an extraordinarily fine recording; heard on less capable speakers, it might take you some time to fall under its spell.

The disc is filled out with the first recordings of RV 578a and RV 372 (“Per Signora Chiara”) and concludes with RV 390, all performed with the same ear for detail and imagination, lyricism and beauty. Both 578a and 372 provide new insights into the less-explored film noir side of Vivaldi’s personality. The music is so rich in dark thoughts and experiences that they cannot have been meant to merely entertain. And, of course, the orchestra at the Conservatorio dell’Ospedale della Pietà was made up of young girls and women who had been abandoned, orphaned, or whose families could not support them. So, they had the life experiences to recognize what Vivaldi was saying with his music, and to respond to the emotional content he infused his music with.

For much too long, these darker sides of the composer’s creative personality have been accorded performances that plod moodily along or, like the recent Mullova disc, with Carmagnola (Archiv), slash with savage fury and burn with desire. The latter approach may be nearer what Vivaldi had in mind, but Beyer and her band make a strong case for performances of the minor key concertos that respond to their Shakespearean qualities of breadth and beauty.

This release is also a sign of how the Zig Zag label has evolved since it began ten years ago with a strong love of Beethoven’s and Schubert’s chamber music performed on original instruments, bookended by excursions into Renaissance love songs and modern chamber music. Zig Zag is now a company that has produced the most persuasive original instrument recording of Beethoven’s complete symphonies which, like this recording of Vivaldi concertos, followed the label’s unswerving principle: When you perform music based on a deep personal understanding of the composer, you can come remarkably close to capturing an impressive fraction of what she or he had in mind.

In doing so, perhaps Zig Zag and other young labels are trying to tell us that classical music as a commercially and artistically viable genre still has plenty of gas in the tank.

– Laurence Vittes