Like all good Baroque composers, Vivaldi was a superb performer: records exist of audiences literally fighting to hear him play. One of Vivaldi’s favourite instruments was the viola d’amore, a twelve-stringed invention of the mid-seventeenth century. Typically, six or seven gut strings were played; the lowest three usually wound. Then there was the same number under the unfretted fingerboard; they acted as resonators. The instrument was often tuned to the principal notes of the tonic chord. This fact – and its rather ‘nasal’ resonance - gave the viola d’amore a particularly sweet and soft sound – especially when compared with that of the voila itself. Played on the arm, the viola d’amore was almost the clavichord to the viola’s harpsichord, if you like.
So, the eight concerti on this welcome CD from Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante have a gentle and supple quality which sits interestingly with Vivaldi’s driven and extrovert concerto style. Biondi takes the viola d’amore lead and plays with great aplomb and vigour. The instrument has sinuous, at times almost ‘gypsy’ fruitiness - as in the largo of RV 395, for example. The temptation is to emphasise this at the expense of the writing’s subtleties and nuances. This is a temptation which Biondi effortlessly avoids: the allegro of RV 396 is a good example of his subtler approach. The exposition is unself-conscious and the pace at which Vivaldi’s ideas are presented and developed neither obscures nor gives undue weight to the consonance between solo instrument and supporting players; but see below, theirs is no conventional continuo role.
This is all to the good: Vivaldi’s own relationship with the viola d’amore was a special one. He did not consider it exotic, antique or a curiosity. Rather, he insisted on teaching it to some of his ablest pupils at a time when it was losing favour in the wider world. Biondi and his forces have managed to reflect very well the status of the viola d’amore for Vivaldi. The feeling of their playing is midway between ‘every day’ and of a quiet pride in its recherché nature by the unassuming specialist.
In fact this disc contains all of Vivaldi’s output for the instrument except for four arias with viola d’amore obbligato. RV 392 displays the twin characteristics of festivity and reserve: the soloist helps to steer a careful balance between the two moods; and does so with that apparent spontaneity which Vivaldi achieved so well. RV 393 is more austere with much dotted rhythm. It is full of drama – which means it is full of contrasts. RV 394 also draws on dance - folk dance; the ornamentation is a virtuoso’s delight. RV 395 uses court dances; greater use is made of counterpoint and more subtle rhythms. RV 396 is more complex still and seems to offer yet greater opportunities for virtuosic display; its slow movement is in sonata form. RV 397 is one of Vivaldi’s dour and dolente works. The sorrow somehow comes from within the music; it’s not forced, thanks to the cantabile nature of the writing. On hearing the insistent ritornelli at the beginning and end of this concerto, is it too fanciful to associate such unhappiness with a certain anger on Vivaldi’s part? Again, it’s to Biondi’s credit that such expressive, emotive playing never swamps the music’s meaning. It is tuneful, clear of texture and shot through with steady tempi without losing bite for a second.
One should not be put off by this scope for virtuosity; or refrain from approaching the music as music. Repeated hearings of this generous CD will leave you inspired by the variety, the understatement and the creative integrity with which Vivaldi approached his task. This was a task which looked forward to the more figurative style of the end of the eighteenth century. One resource that Vivaldi used to achieve this was to have his soloists play in concertante style. They all perform the ritornelli as well as the solo passages. There is thus less a sense of accompaniment; more of a symphonic whole. RV 97 with horns and staccato rhythms shows this nicely: full-scale drama making its impact with orchestral tone as much as with melody and harmony.
The double concerto for viola d’amore and lute, RV 540, was written later than the other concerti here; indeed it was written at the very end of Vivaldi’s life. It seems to hint at valediction and betrays perhaps tender regrets with a wisp of nostalgia. Beautifully played here, its misty understatement somehow draws us all the way into Vivaldi’s world and the unfocused introversion of Venice.
So the music on this well-conceived and welcome CD is not an oddity and should not be considered such. The playing is ‘personal’; it approaches the intricacies required by the music appropriately and yet acts as a quiet advocate for this special area of Vivaldi’s concerto writing. The liner-notes are adequate and the recording neither boxed nor sonorous.-- Mark Sealey