Recording of the Month: Vivaldi: L'Estro Armonico

Vivaldi: L'Estro Armonico: 12 Concertos for Violins, Op.3
Rachel Podger, Bojan Cicic, Johannes Pramsohler, violin; Brecon Baroque, Rachel Podger
Channel Classics CCS SA 36515 (2 SACD/CDs). 2015. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, prod.; Jared Sacks, eng.; Ernst Coutinho, asst. eng. DDD. TT: 96:54
Performance *****
Sonics *****

It's no big secret that classical music is in trouble. At a time when selling a few hundred CDs will land you squarely in the upper reaches of the classical music chart, and the venerable New York Philharmonic faces an unsettled future in terms of its endowment, future conductor and hall renovation, many say that what the genre most lacks are genuine shining stars. It's been a long time since maestros like Leonard Bernstein or Georg Solti trod the boards, or a brilliant instrumentalist like Jacqueline du Pré became a celebrity and attracted the attention of a larger public that then might actually buy a record or attend a concert. In 2015, building an audience is classical music's central dilemma—so having a dominant player like baroque violinist Rachel Podger is a much-needed development. It's a sign of our fragmented times that a baroque violinist, rather than one who concentrates on the classical and romantic repertoire, has now become a leading light in the classical world.

Educated in Germany and the UK, Podger went on to play with the Palladian Ensemble and Florilegium, and led the English Concert from 1997 to 2002. In 2004, Podger became a guest director of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Her recordings have won numerous prestigious awards, including Diapasons d'Or (for Telemann's 12 Fantasies for Solo Violin, and for Vivaldi's 12 violin concertos, La Stravaganza) and a Gramophone Baroque Instrumental Award (for La Stravaganza). Podger holds the Micaela Comberti Chair for Baroque Violin at the Royal Academy of Music, and the Jane Hodge Foundation International Chair in Baroque Violin at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. She is also the artistic director of her own festival, the Brecon Baroque Festival; the annual four-day event, created in 2006, features her ensemble, Breton Baroque, which is heard here in another program of Vivaldi: the 12 concertos collected and published in 1711 by an Amsterdam publisher under the title L'Estro Armonico (which means, roughly, "musical rapture").

Often cited as the first examples of Vivaldi's genius to break through to the larger world, these dozen concertos for one, two, or four violins, with cello and continuo, were influential in their time—they were transcribed by J.S. Bach—and have remained delights ever since. Lively in the extreme, they demand virtuosic interplay to come to full fruition. According to James Manheim on, they were "among the favorites of the groups that really kicked off the Baroque music revival in the 1950s and 1960s, and no stereophile living room was complete without a set."

The other nagging problem faced by classical music 15 years into the new century is that much of the general public, especially the übercritical younger portion of which has been raised on the there-and-gone, instant-gratification world of the Internet, associates it with slow programs of overlong, unchanging musical works that take too long to get to the point.

Here, Podger and her superb cohorts emphatically put the lie to how boring classical music must be. They also debunk the long-held notion that Vivaldi was a master (like many composers, including Handel) of cannibalizing himself, in essence writing the same concerto over and over again. The variety of melodic inventiveness in L'Estro Armonico is dazzlingly original. As is usually the case with the Italian master, the tempos are sprightly, almost fizzy in spots. Under Podger's active intelligence and inspiring vision, rhythmic energy is always the center of these performances, as she and her ensemble fly through the fast bits, assaying each ornament with dramatic flair. In some ways, the old, oversimplified adages about playing Vivaldi's music remain true: it's best to dig in and go. And yet, in the slow movements—as in the charming melodic figure played by Podger in the short Largo of Concerto 5—every long line is given time to rise and expand like a mysterious scent filling a room. Fantastic moments abound.

The intense precision and taut exuberance among the soloists in the Adagio of 2 are breathtaking. The lively stabs and feints between the solo violins in the Allegro of 8, and its overall interweaving of string parts, has an invigorating beauty. And the finale of Concerto 12 has a wondrous, simple, childlike glee amid its scampering tempos and jaunty allegro.

In her liner note, Podger calls these works "wonderfully entertaining," and says that, in Vivaldi, "raw energy is regularly the order of the day"—she's especially appreciative of the "rapid acrobatics passed between the various configurations of soloists." This is intense, ultramelodic chamber music with the brisk tempos to please speed-metal fans, and enough complexity of texture and joyous effervescence to tempt young ears and quicken the beat of even the most jaded classical heart.

Recorded in St. John the Evangelist Church, in London, this SACD/CD has unsurpassed immediacy and presence in the stereo DSD tracks, (I didn't test the 5.1-channel layer), and the tonal colors are beautifully and accurately captured. I loved the balanced depth of the images of the soloists and the accompanying ensemble. Stereophile editor John Atkinson's verdict: "a paradigm of modern classical recording."—Robert Baird

Anon2's picture

On sonic qualities alone, one should not hesitate to buy any Channel Classics recordings. Less should one hesitate on the artistic merits of the recordings produced by Channel Classics. On both scores, this is an outstanding label, as are other European labels putting out new recordings in the SACD format.

Arkivmusic concurs with this evaluation, and offers a nearly 8 minute video excerpt.

There may be fewer classical recordings sold per issue today; that's the glass half empty perspective.

From another viewpoint, the classical catalog has never been broader, as I have posted in other comments on Stereophile. Maybe there are fewer war-horse recordings, and none more from the Soltis and Bernsteins of classical music eras past. Even then, I'm sure there are more than a few Solti and Bernstein recordings that I have yet to hear and/or purchase.

In any event, this recording underscores the near bottomless depth of the existing classical repertoire. The abundance of these recordings in the SACD format (though there is a DSD download for this recording) provides a nearly unlimited trove of outstanding performances, recorded better than ever, to stretch the performance of any hi-fi system.

I have relied on Stereophile's superb recommendations of SACD and other high quality classical recordings. Keep the recommendations coming. See the websites of BIS, Pentatone, Channel Classics, Capriccio, Berlin Classics, Linn and others for more great discoveries.

For a musical genre with limited new output, one can only marvel at what even the devoted classical music listener has yet to discover. And, even with a few hundred recordings standing as a relatively formidable output, there are no doubts in my mind that in 200 years L'Estro Armonico will be performed and listened to on whatever musical reproduction devices that may exist in that future day.