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Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Sonata in D minor Op. 1/12
La Follia RV 63
The collection of Twelve Trio Sonatas Op. 1 was published by the Venetian house of Giuseppe Sala in 1705. Similarly to the other published collections by Vivaldi, it became known throughout Europe and reprinted four more times within the composer’s lifetime. It was dedicated to Count Annibale Gambara.
At the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, the trio sonata was one of the most popular genres of instrumental music in Italy. The composers modelled their work on four sonata collections by Arcangelo Corelli. Mastery in the genre was generally seen as a test of composing talent, allowing a display of the ability to simultaneously shape the melody and the counterpoint.
Vivaldi, similarly to Albinoni and Caldara, made his debut with a collection of twelve trio sonatas. They were written for two violins and a cello (more precisely a violone) or a harpsichord. The earliest preserved Vivaldi pieces, they are characteristic in their individual and fully-formed style.
As in Corelli’s Opus 5, published five years previously, the final sonata of the collection consists of ostinato variations on the popular La Follia bass formula. The name (madness, insanity) and the structure of the bass had its origins in an old Portuguese dance. The sonata opens with a theme in slow tempo (Adagio), reminiscent of a majestic and solemn sarabande. It is followed by 19 variations in various tempos, virtuoso in character and exceptionally differentiated; some carry connotations with various stylised dances. They present in a nutshell the entirety of Vivaldi’s knowledge of instrumental technique.
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Concerto in D minor for cello, string orchestra and basso continuo
Concerto per violoncello, archi e basso continuo RV 407
Concerto in D minor comes from the collection of Count Rudolf von Schönborn, music-lover and cellist. It was he who ordered the purchase of a large selection of scores in Venice in 1708-13; these included eight cello concertos by Vivaldi. This allows one to suppose that this piece was composed in an early period of the composer's oeuvre.
In agreement with the composer’s model, the concerto consists of three movements in contrastive tempos. The solo instrument is accompanied by strings with a continuo part.
∙ In the fast movements, (Allegro) the concert play consists in a rivalry if the soloist and the orchestra. They begin with a presentation of a ritornello theme by both the soloist and the orchestra, who realises the part of the remaining cellos. The returns of the theme are separated one from another by virtuoso episodes in the cello. The solo instrument is discreetly accompanied by a single cello of the orchestra and the harpsichord. This liberates the contrast in volume between the tutti and solo segments. In the first movement, the musical material of the episodes clashes with the tempestuous ritornello, with a highlighted element of the orchestra's colour. In the dancing third movement, the episodes of the soloist take over the motives of the tutti theme.
∙ The lyrical and subdued middle movement (Largo e sempre piano) brings the soloist into the foreground. The expressive cantilena-figurative melody of the cello develops against the background of a rhythmically uniform, delicate accompaniment. The constantly repeated chromatic bass figure resembles a chaconne. The doublebasses and the harpsichord are separated from the orchestra’s tone.
Concerto in D minor is an example of a great knowledge and intuition of the solo instrument. Vivaldi exhibits there the properties and the tonal nuances of the cello as well as its virtuoso potential.
The Baroque, with its love of the monumental, of rich decorativeness, of great emotional gesture, sharp contrast and illusory miracle, was as undoubtedly a product of Italian culture as the Gothic, opus francigenum, was a product of France. Yet when the second half of the 20th century saw a great return to early music, and first of all to that of the Baroque, Italy long seemed uninterested in helping pave our contemporary way to that art. This is even more curious as it was not only the early Baroque that was a great triumph of Italian music; later, too, in the last phase of the era, Italian composers (such as Corelli, Scarlatti or Vivaldi) left a very significant trace on the state of European musical consciousness. It is indeed difficult to understand why early music took so long to find its place in the concert life in the cradle of the Baroque; why 20th-century Italians failed for so long to identify with such an illustrious part of their tradition. What is more, they showed some promise at first: eminent Italian composers of the first half of the 20th century exhibited an interest, nay, a veritable fascination with their country’s Baroque music. Few now remember that it was Alfredo Casella who introduced long-forgotten concertos by Vivaldi at the Siena festivals, or that it was Gian Francesco Malipiero who, in his editions, restored to us the complete works by Monteverdi. Why were they not followed by a popular enthusiasm of the Italians for this music? It might be helpful to quote Malipiero's answer, in fact given not to this particular question, but to that on the unsatisfactory reception of his own compositions in his country. He said that he, as an artist, felt somewhat like a prisoner, and that his prison “was made of the stones of Italian opera.” The Italian opera he had in mind was of course that of 19th-century bel canto and verismo of Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini. This was the Italians’ true spiritual motherland that remained unchanged despite the flow of time – and not their modern music, despite its great success in Europe after the Second World War, and, even less so, the music of the Baroque. Meanwhile, Italian Baroque compositions found excellent performers North of the Alps. It is thanks to their recordings, made in accord with their knowledge of the era, its aesthetics and its performing practice, that music-lovers could become acquainted with the greatest pieces of Italian Baroque – from Monteverdi to Vivaldi and Tartini. Only then did a new generation appear in Italy, musicians now over forty, who saw themselves as inheritors of the great masters of Venice, Rome, or Naples, and the performance of Baroque works as their own cause. It soon became evident that their approach differed from that of the Northern performers, that they could discover qualities previously unexpected. Quite obviously, too: for who could have a better understanding of affected mannerist madrigals, of multicoloured and grandiose polychoral pieces or of dazzling virtuosic display than the Italians, who see them as an expression of their temperament, their emotionality, their desire for the spectacular and for the theatricality of life.
It was not a coincidence that such trends manifested themselves so powerfully in Italy in the last two decades of the previous century. It were the 1980s and the 1990s that saw the emergence of today’s most valued early music ensembles: Concerto Italiano (1984), Giardino Armonico (1985), Europa Galante (1989); I Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca appeared as the first among them in 1983. “Something” must have been “in the air:” young Italian musicians, often educated at the Schola Cantorum in Basle, must have matured enough to show to the world at large their own understanding of their own early music. This resulted in a series of what must be called discoveries, both in music already very well known and in that restored after centuries of oblivion: a suggestive, highly emotional, dramatic and subtle Monteverdi as interpreted by the Concerto Italiano, or a tempestuous Vivaldi in the somewhat controversial performance by the Giardino Armonico, with their bizarre and, at times, rough articulation, full of great dynamic force. In this context, Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marcia were remarkable in their faultless virtuosity, elegance of phrase, rich scale of colours and, more often than not, their sense of humour. It is to this ensemble that we owe perhaps the most beautiful recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (with an excellent Giuliano Carmignola) and the Venetian master’s concertos for various instruments that emanate a typically Mediterranean sensuality. Although, at the time, it would seem that the music of Vivaldi was already well-known and highly popular, the ensemble was able to find its new qualities, as evidenced by the ensemble’s numerous prizes. Vivaldi as discovered by Italian performers becomes a brilliant Venetian colourist, just like the 16th- and the 17th-century painters of the Serenissima, who focused on the play of colours and reflections of light rather than the linear ideas of their paintings. His music is a repudiation of Classical moderation and order (which seemed to reign in some of its interpretations by the Academy of Ancient Music); it captivates with its rhythmic energy, violent dynamic accents, dramatic contrasts, ostentatious virtuosity for its own sake. It arrests the audience’s attention with clearly delineated and catchy themes, it is lucid and easy to grasp in both its rondo (initial rapid movements) or ternary forms (slow movements). It has the seductive singing qualities of Italian arias (the slow adagios or largos) that neighbour on tempestuous virtuosic gallopades, described by 18th-century Englishmen as “the storm and the fire of Italian style.” Vivaldi writes his concertos without forgetting that art should be spectacular and theatrical, with emotions exaggerated if only ever so slightly. It is a paradox that while the operas by the Venetian composer suffer a certain lack of the drama, his concertos are perfectly theatrical and highly dramatic.
Although there is a number of elements of his particular inspiration in Vivaldi, two are dominant: his creative and truly innovative approach to virtuosity, and inspiration with nature. Very often, the two dominating elements combine harmoniously in individual works. As to his virtuosity, its independent function in Vivaldi is not limited to inventiveness in violin-playing technique (after all, he was an outstanding violinist), but it also greatly enriches the language of flute or even of cello. Virtuosity performs various roles in Vivaldi; not only is it a dazzling display of, at times, acrobatic dexterity (as in some of his opera arias or fragments of concertos) but also a powerful means of expression; it can also acquire imitative features. And this brings us to the second of Vivaldi’s great inspirations: his fascination with nature, with its sounds and images. One would expect that the old Renaissance motto of imitazione della natura become somewhat obsolete in the Baroque. Not at all: that is when the most captivating musical images appear, rendering various manifestations of nature, and Baroque artists (painters as well as musicians) discover nature set in motion by, say, a violent attack of the elements, and they obviously continue to paint with sound charming idyllic landscapes. Vivaldi is one of the most splendid Baroque painters of nature, an equal in this respect of Haendel and of Rameau. The composer’s desire to render the violent storms of summer, the snow blizzards of winter or the song of birds greeting the coming of spring inspires him to invent ever new ideas of articulation and technique. This is exactly where virtuosity blends with a quest for colour, very often leading to very interesting effects. The present popularity of those “programme” concertos by Vivaldi is no coincidence. They include not only I Quattro Staggioni, a long-standing presence among the greatest hits, but also his op. 10 flute concertos: La tempesta di mare (The Tempest), La Notte (The Night) and Il Cardellino (The Goldfinch). The first uses the composer’s trademark turbulent and energetic violin figurations, sudden repetitions of notes, to paint a stormy sea. The meditative Largo is only a temporary respite. Particularly interesting musical images can be found in La Notte (an exceptional six-movement structure as opposed to Vivaldi’s usual three), possibly because the composer is not constrained to follow concrete images of nature and, instead, he can weave turbulent (Presto with a stormy concitato) or serene or even idyllic (Largo) dreams, leaving us to guess at their shapes and appearances. And finally, Il Cardellino, perhaps the most conventional of the three “programme” concertos in its melodic ideas, moves towards a more direct imitation of the song of the goldfinch. Similarly to its predecessors, it contains some brilliant inventions of ornamentation that turn the melodic line of solo flute into a fantastic arabesque (the final Allegro). It should be noted that Vivaldi is a pioneer of concertos for winds (flute, oboe, bassoon), and his flute concertos coincide with the decline of the recorder and the triumphant emergence of the transverse flute on the concert stage.
Programme features, even if limited to allusion, are also visible in his concertos La Pastorella and Alla Rustica; the latter carries simple, clear-cut and lucidly constructed themes. They are all – orchestral as well as flute concertos (with the exception of La Notte) – three-movement pieces, the composer's favourite form, based on the fundamental contrast between brilliant or tempestuous rapid parts and the singing, lyrical or melancholy slow movement placed in the centre. There is no conflict between the repetitive form and the wealth of musical ideas it contains. A certain breach in this apotheosis of ternary form comes with Sonata op. 1/12 “La Follia,” a relatively early work (1705), a collection of fantastic and tempestuous variations on a highly popular Iberian model of basso continuo. From the very start, we drawn into a vortex of ever-wilder violin figurations, at times with Gypsy overtones (chromatic glissandos), at times blended with a broad and seemingly sleepy violin cantilena. Could this be a reminiscence of passionate Venetian carnivals?