New Classical Tracks: Making the Case for Vivaldi

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
July 13, 2010

St. Paul, Minn. — It was Igor Stravinsky who dismissed the career of Antonio Vivaldi by saying the Baroque composer wrote the same concerto 400 times. With their latest release of little-known concertos by Vivaldi, titled "Gods, Emperors, and Angels," Adrian Chandler and La Serenissima challenge that accusation. La Serenissima is a period-instrument Baroque ensemble formed in 1994 specifically to perform works by Vivaldi, and the group has since established itself as a primary advocate for Vivaldi and his Italian contemporaries.

Vivaldi was a Venetian Baroque composer and a violin virtuoso who was also an ordained priest. For nearly 40 years he served as a music teacher to the young orphan girls at Ospedale della Pieta. While it was referred to as an orphanage, the Ospedale was also home to the young girls born to the mistresses of wealthy noblemen, who thus ensured they were well cared for. They also had the best musical training in Venice. Visitors who witnessed performances confirmed that the girls sang like angels, and were expert musicians. Vivaldi composed hundreds of concertos for the arsenal of musical instruments played by his "angels" at La Pieta. The Concerto for Bassoon in a minor is one example. While the bassoon is often reserved for comic relief in the orchestra, in this setting the composer demonstrates the lyrical side of this instrument. Irish-born Peter Whelan, who's currently principal bassoon of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, sings through the first allegro with a rich, warm tone. La Serenissima provides subtle, staccato accompaniment to Whelan's sumptuous solo line in the gentle largo.

Vivaldi composed 21 operas in his lifetime. While composing for the lavish orchestra at the court of Mantua in the early 18th century, he made full use of the expanded instrumentation available to him. It was in these operas that Vivaldi first began to write for the highest member of the recorder family, the sopranino recorder. A few years later, he started to feature this instrument in some of his concertos, requiring colossal technical prowess from the soloist. Who better to master this challenge in the 21st century than Pamela Thorby, a versatile recorder player who was also the driving force behind the Palladian Ensemble for years? In Vivaldi's Concerto for Sopranino Recorder, Thorby demonstrates incredible agility and breath control as she artfully works her way down the scale.

Vivaldi was well acquainted with the glitterati of the 18th century. To gain the patronage of the Roman Emperor Charles VI, an amateur composer and musician, Vivaldi dedicated two extravagant sets of string concertos to him. Both were titled "La Cetra," meaning "The Lyre." Vivaldi chose the name as a way to flatter the emperor by comparing him to the god Apollo, whose lyre was interchangeable with the violin. The Concerto No. 9 from "La Cetra," for two violins, strings and continuo in B flat major, opens with an energetic allegro featuring tight harmonies in the dueling violins. The sparse orchestration in the slow second movement puts the limelight on solo violinists Andrian Chandler and Sara Deborah Struntz, who perform in synchronized unity, anticipating one another's musical movements.

The Concerto No. 10 in E major from the "La Cetra" collection also bears the name "L'Amoroso," meaning "the lover." This charming concerto features a gorgeous, flirtatious melody in the first movement. The violin solo expands on that theme, winning over the hearts of listeners.

There are eight concertos featured on "Gods, Emperors and Angels," as well as one lone sonata for recorder and bassoon in a minor. The delightful teamwork of Pamela Thorby and Peter Whelan is captivating on this sonata. I especially enjoy the bassoon's staccato continuo part as the recorder smoothly sails through the melody in the slow largo.

On their new recording, "Gods, Emperors and Angels," Adrian Chandler and La Serenissima make a convincing case on Vivaldi's behalf. By bringing to light some of Vivaldi's rarely heard concertos, this period-instrument ensemble helps to prove that he was one of the most original and innovative composers of the Baroque era. Their performances are nimble and exhilarating, fit for "Gods, Emperors and Angels," or for regular folks like the rest of us.

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Melissa Ousley
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