The Venice Competition of Harmony and Invention

Vivaldi - inspiring like the flowers in our garden. © Amélie Wohlgenannt
Vivaldi – inspiring like the flowers in our garden. © Amélie Wohlgenannt

Can I write about Antonio Vivaldi’s Violin Concertos commonly know as “Le Quattro Stagioni” (The Four Seasons) without boring you? Vivaldi succeeded in an admirable way to paint with notes the sounds heard during the different seasons: the birds at spring time, a summer thunderstorm, the drinking and dancing on a late summer night, the bitter winter frost… Everything worth saying or writing about this piece has been said and written. Really? I hope I can find a new angle. The four concertos “Spring” in E major, “Summer” in G minor, “Autumn” in F major, and “Winter” in F minor are part of those compositions that I can listen to over and over again. Why? Because I feel how every note speaks to me, resonates in my body and makes me shiver out of pure pleasure. And I am blessed since I have three recordings to choose from.

Three approaches to Vivaldi

Recording nb. 1 has been made by the Vienna based Baroque ensemble Concentus Musicus Wien, set up in 1953 by the Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who recently passed away, and his wife Alice. On the recording, the ensemble is led by Alice Harnoncourt. They represent what musicologist call historically informed performance*, which means that they use period i.e. Baroque instruments to reproduce the sound as the composer and the Baroque audience might have heard it. They also try to respect historical performance parameters (size of the concert hall, acoustics etc.). I very much appreciate that approach as I lets me relive that era… at least acoustically!

Recording nb. 2 is by the French ensemble Gli Incogniti founded in 2006 by the excellent French violinist Amandine Beyer. Their strong point is exploring Baroque works the audience is not so familiar with and transmitting the passion of performing Baroque music. Secretly, I am glowing for this ensemble. They are just so incredibly good!

Recording nb. 3 has been made by the Capella Istropolitana under conductor Takako Nishizaki. The Slovakian orchestra was formed in 1983, and in 1991 the Bratislava City council appointed it officially the Chamber Orchestra of the City of Bratislava. Takako Nishizaki is a renown violinist and married to Claus Heymann, owner of the Naxos label. This is the first recording of the “Four Seasons” I bought and heard. Thus it represents my initial scale to “measure” other performances.

Listening and comparing

Are you still with me? This rather long introduction was necessarily to point out what may already dawn on you, clever as you are: The three ensembles have different approaches, and the concertos sound different when you move from one recording to the next. Isn’t this fascinating? It is. Vivaldi published the concertos in 1725. There is one score and yet there are worlds between the performance by the Concentus Musicus Wien and Gli Incogniti on the one hand and the performance of the Capella Istropolitana on the other hand.

Since I do not grow tired of listening to the four concertos, I try to find the differences in the performances through repeated listening. The Capella Istropolitana for instance plays the 1st concerto “Spring” in a more muted way. Gli Incogniti and Harnoncourt’s ensemble play it with more clarity, Gli Incogniti slightly faster and with a more full-bodied sound. HIP or not HIP…

Early Programm-Musik

The four concerts are part op a larger cycle called “Cimento dell’Armonia e dell’Inventione(The Contest between Harmony and Invention), Op. 8. Vivaldi dedicated them to his Bohemian patron Count Wenzel von Morzin. At the time they were published in Amsterdam, Vivaldi was working as a composer in Venice and partly also in Rome. In July 1723, he had been asked by the governors of the music school Ospedale della Pietà in Venice to supply its orchestra with two concertos every month and to direct the rehearsals. Archive records confirm that Vivaldi received payment for 140 concertos written between 1723 and 1729.

The four concerts were written around 1723, and Vivaldi published them along with poems about the four different seasons, explaining in detail what the music is supposed to evoke or illustrate. As such, Vivaldi was one of the first composers writing what musicologists call Programm-Musik: secular instrumental music expressing specific ideas or concepts or telling a story. I did not find out whether Vivaldi wrote the poems himself or whether he had a ghostwriter. But I won’t let you go empty-handed. For those feeling an urgent desire to read the texts along with a translation into English, here is the link to the relevant page.

 © Charles Thibo

Editor’s  note: I would like to point out to my German readers an excellent children’s book (with audio CD) introducing classical music in general and Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” to children. I learnt a lot by listening to it with my daughter in the car.

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de Chareli

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4 thoughts on “The Venice Competition of Harmony and Invention”

    1. I wasn’t aware of Carmignola’s recording, I knew him only through some of Mozart’s violin concertos. I will have a look at his interpretation and see how it compares to those mentioned in the post. Thank you for your input! And for the readers of the comments on this post, here is a link to the aforementioned recording:

      Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (Expanded Edition) by Andrea Marcon, Giuliano Carmignola & Venice Baroque Orchestra

  1. Well, you did it! Your description is indeed interesting and makes me want to go an d listen to these pieces once again, as in:, right now! 🙂

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