Podger's Delightful Four Seasons

"Why should I bother with yet another recording of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons?" you may ask. "There are already 226 entries for it at arkivmusic.com!"

Because baroque violinist Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque's new, period instrument Channel Classics SACD of Le Quattro Stagioni and three other violin concertos by Vivaldi is likely the freshest, most joy-filled, and best-recorded of the bunch. Podger, who plays with and directs her superb ensemble of eight, isn't interested in knocking you over the head with pyrotechnic wizardry or some bizarre 21st century take on Vivaldi's Top Hit of 1730. Instead, her sole desire, masterfully enabled by engineer Jared Sacks, is to honor the humor, invention, good spirits, and marvelous interplay of colors that have made Vivaldi's irresistibly tuneful concerto a perennial classic.

Available in stereo and surround, in download resolutions up to DSD256 or DXD—I auditioned it in DSD128—the recording puts a premium on color and space. Set down in St. Jude's Church, London, which is completely not immune to the very occasional low rumble from passing traffic or, perhaps, the Underground, the recording optimally balances acoustic resonance with clarity of focus. With period instrument timbres far less homogenized than their modern counterparts—the sound of theorbo in the adagio of one of the recording's infinitely lovely companion concertos, Il Riposo per Il S.S. Natale, is to savor over and over—the recording puts a premium on color saturation, interplays and contrasts without ever drawing attention to itself. Made with DSD Super Audio / Horus DSD256 Pyramix Editing/Merging Technologies equipment and Van den Hul cables, this native DSD production is demonstration class.

It's the playing, however, that puts Podger's version over the top. You may not know the program of The Four Seasons, but the ever-popular first movement, La Primavera (Spring), includes violins imitating trilling birds, and scoring designed to maximize the feelings of height, space, and the freedom that spring brings (for everyone except the seriously allergic). Having interviewed Podger, and found her every bit as charming as her playing, it's clear that her hand-picked ensemble is filled with musicians who share her delight in music, sound, and life. With no pun intended, this is one of the gayest versions of La Primavera I've ever encountered.

With the second movement, L'Estate (Summer), populated by flies and mosquitoes, thunder from an approaching storm, and the inward ruminations of an occasionally bitten, storm-threatened shepherd; the third movement, L'Autunno (Autumn) centering around a drunken fool who so annoys the ensemble that they determine to do him in; and the close, L'Inverno (Winter), replete with shivering limbs and chattering teeth that eventually warm by the fireside as raindrops hit the window pane, The Four Seasons is ripe with narrative and humor. Once you know what it's about, you can savor all of that in this recording.

Because the three other concertos are not as well known—Vivaldi, after all, wrote at least 214 of his over 500 concertos for violin and orchestra—is no reason to write them off. The intentionally light scoring of the aforementioned Il Riposo (The Rest) allows for an overabundance of lovely, sweet felicities that transform time and space into a wonderland come true. Concerto L'Amoroso (The Lover) is just as sweet, while the closing Concerto, Il Grosso Mogul (The Great Mogul) is a grand, slashing tour-de-force. Most likely a fantasy written for a theatrical performance or opera set in India (by someone who had never visited India), it serves as a foil to the two short concertos that precede it, and enables us to rise from our seats refreshed and optimistic.

COMMENTS
Charles E Flynn's picture
Jason Victor Serinus's picture

They must have just added it. I looked at every album by Podger, as well as under Vivaldi's Four Seasons, and it wasn't there.

Charles E Flynn's picture

Jason,

You are welcome, and thanks for an outstanding review.

There is much to enjoy at the ArkivMusic site, but the way the internal searching works is not part of it. Even now, you cannot find the album by searching on the site, unless you look at the new releases. It is currently #107.

The search technique that works best is to use Google, with the syntax that restricts the search to a single Website:

site:http://www.arkivmusic.com podger vivaldi stagioni

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

What a great idea, Charles. I expect it will also work at HDTracks, whose search engine seems designed to simulate an easter egg hunt (or the hunt for the Afikomen on Passover). Thank you.

Charles E Flynn's picture

Jason,

You are welcome.

The site-specific syntax does work at HD Tracks. Searching for:

site:http://www.hdtracks.com podger vivaldi stagioni

gives for the first result:

http://www.hdtracks.com/classical/vivaldi-le-quattro-stagioni-the-four-s...

rustybutt's picture

Some years ago I caught a performance of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra doing "The Four Seasons". It's a real war horse we've heard a zillion times, but this performance was like hearing it for the very first time, and it was the first time it ever struck me as an impressionistic piece of music. I think the soloist was Elizabeth Bluemenstock.

Good baroque playing on period instruments has an almost jazz-like quality of spontaneity and freedom. That's what I hear in the performances of both Phiharmonia Baroque and of Rachael Podger.

My wife is a professional violinist who does both "modern" and baroque style playing and has worked with both the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra and Philharmonia Baroque. Her "modern" instrument was made in 1849 and her baroque instrument was made in 1774. Both are of French origin. I've learned a lot from her.

We're both big fans of Rachael Podger so when it was announced that she was coming to the San Francisco area to play with and direct Philharmonia Baroque from the concert master's seat a couple years ago we had to go! I dropped Top Dollar for the best seats in the house because she's worth every nickel. That was Special! She's a real firecracker.

Thank you for letting me know this new recording is out there. I'll be sure to order it up.

Charles E Flynn's picture

I keep track of my books and media in a Macintosh program called Booxter. This review from Stereophile was not on the Stereophile site, but elsewhere on the Web, from which it has disappeared. I am now especially pleased that I saved the text.

The recording is Philharmonia Baroque Productions PBP-03 .
Amazon ASIN B005HO1WAG .
http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=613845

Stereophile
July 2012 page 115
Review by: Robert Levine [Performance: 5 stars. Sound Quality: 5 stars.]

Spring starts crisply, with nice accents; bird calls are amazingly bright and rich, the trills impeccable. The second movement’s languid melancholy is underlined by small, unwritten embellishments, and this is carried into the finale as well, which is amazingly sweet and contains many surprises. You can feel the breezes. Summer is sweaty until it begins to really blaze; the s-l-o-w downward portamenti are weird and evocative; the alternating lyrical and stormy moments of the second movement startle; the Presto is a dangerous storm, the lightening almost visible, with soloist and tutti ferocious. Autumn is mellow; the harpsichord in the second movement is nice and shadowy; the peasants stump in the third movement and the hunt is on for game-attacks are fierce. The contrast between dances and lulls are very specific. Winter is simply staggering and reason enough to own this CD. As it begins, it sounds like a rusty hinge and you get the quintessence of freezing just from chords; the insane violin part becomes desperate chattering. Even in the smoother Largo, the underlying strings are played bowed staccato, and our soloist again adds variations to the line that are as original as they are exquisite. The trills throughout are almost dreadful in their chill. You’ve never heard anything like it.

The other three concertos, rarely recorded, are jewels, as well.

Elizabeth Blumenstock is the soloist, and she’s as fearless as she is accomplished. Sonics are perfect. Wow-another Four Seasons. I mean it: Wow.

John Atkinson's picture
rustybutt wrote:
My wife is a professional violinist who does both "modern" and baroque style playing and has worked with both the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra and Philharmonia Baroque. Her "modern" instrument was made in 1849 and her baroque instrument was made in 1774.

Does your wife use a baroque bow with the 1774 instrument? I played violin when I was a teenager but took up viola da gamba in the late 1970s to play with an early music ensemble. The big difference (apart from frets) was that with the baroque bow, the up-bow became the strong stroke and required a very different approach to bowing.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

rustybutt's picture

Katie not only has a baroque bow, she also has a transitional classical period bow.

Her 1849 "modern" violin was made by Georges Chanot.
Her "modern" bow is about 110 years old, is also French and made by Vigneron.

The baroque violin was made by Augustus Chappuy.
I can't tell you who made the baroque and transitional bows. I'm just reading off the instrument insurance policy.

Katie was a player on Philharmonia's recording of works by Rameau
https://www.amazon.com/Rameau-Orchestral-Suites-temple-gloire/dp/B00B4HS...

But that was a long time ago. She's been mostly working with the SF Ballet orchestra for the last 20 years which pays at least twice as much as Philharmonia does. She gets calls from other baroque groups here in the area during the year. She played the Bach B-minor mass with a contracted orchestra a couple weeks ago and gets calls from SF Bach Soloists from time to time. But most of the work she gets called for is modern orchestra.

She's the "serious" musician in the family. I play too, but I'm not looking to it as a way to make money. My own band is more into ballroom dance, swing, jazz, Ragtime, etc. 5 horns and a drummer.

Drollwage's picture

Thank you so much for bringing another wonderful recording to the Stereophile community’s attention! Enticed by your review, and delighted to find the album on Tidal HiFi, I was treated to a very enjoyable evening of Vivaldi. The only downside is, your reviews are getting expensive: I fall in love with your recommended piece on Tidal, and then end up ordering the CD (I’m an old-school hard-copy guy, nervously awaiting Tidal’s long-predicted demise). Should you find yourself in Atlantic Canada, dinner is on me. I owe you at least that much!

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

by the time I get there, will you still have enough money to take me to dinner? If you do, thank you.

Allen Fant's picture

Excellent review as always, JVS.
I can never get enough Vivaldi, especially, the Four Seasons.
I will add this disc to my list.

PAR's picture

I have been enjoying this recording in DSD128 for the past three weeks or so. It is every bit as good as you say, my friends have voted it record of the year ( perhaps a little prematurely). Thank you for such an imaginative and sensitive review. It has added aspects to my understanding which I shall draw upon the next time I play it.

I have to add that all of Rachel Podger's recordings of Vivaldi on Channel Classics are well worth the effort to acquire.

Your review has made me recall that last year I went to a BBC Prom featuring I Fagiolini. I expected the vocal group plus maybe an instrument as continuo. My surprise was that the group were accompanied by a full baroque string ensemble plus theorbo and organ. There, leading the strings completely unannounced and just playing her part with no fuss, was one of the world's leading baroque violin virtuosos : Rachel Podger. As you say, charming and with no sense at all of wanting to be treated as a prima donna (if that is the correct term for a violinist).

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

David and I will be in London and Cambridge Sept. 23-30, after time in Paris. It's his birthday celebration, and my first trip to those cities. Alas, the Proms will be over. You've reminded me that, today, I must go online and look at concerts / operas to see and perhaps review.

volvic's picture

to Le Grand Vefour, it is in the Palais Royale in Paris. Finest dining on the planet. Then if you can, take the metro a few stops and go to the Opera. That is what my wife and I did on our honeymoon a few years back.

PAR's picture

Welcome to you both to my country and city in September. The music season will only just about have started as well as the academic year so when you are in Cambridge I expect that it may be too early for some of the Cambridge University choral events e.g. the choir of Clare College. However I would recommend Jordi Savell and Hesperion XXI in London at the newly refurbished Queen Elizabeth Hall (Southbank Centre) on 25th.

Remember to buy an Oyster card when you are in London (travel). It will save you a lot and will let you travel on all of the public transport services ( but not the Emirate Airline cable car at Greenwich) to just about anywhere in the city.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I've interviewed Jordi, but I'm going to have to miss him in Seattle. This sounds like another opportunity.
Thank you,
moi

Charles E Flynn's picture
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