I remember that night in Rome. It had been hot, extremely hot for several days. The air stood still, and combined with the exhaust fumes of the cars, buses and motorcycles, the atmosphere was suffocating. I refrained from breathing as good as I could and only by 10 o’clock in the evening, I would start to feel at ease. But this night was different. When I returned to my hotel after work, I saw those towering clouds in the south-west. By the time I sat down for dinner at the Piazza delle Coppelle, the sky had turned black. By the time I got off the tram, the first gusts blew the dust the street. And I had to run. Fast. Just as I made it to the hotel, big raindrops started to fall evolving into a torrential rain that lasted several hours into the night. What a relief! I lay on my bed, breathing the fresh, cool air and I listened to Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in B Minor, RV 390. How good it felt, how incredibly good.
Nobody seems to know when Vivaldi wrote this piece, not even the venerable Oxford Music Online database, which let’s me assume that it actually is unknown. Like so many Baroque composers, Vivaldi wrote on the spur, for a specific occasion or upon a specific commission and did not think about later generations and the plight of music researchers some 300 years later. But perhaps this is a good occasion to say a few words about his style and here again the experts from Oxford University are quite helpful: “If he did not invent ritornello form – the form in which varied restatements in different keys of a ritornello (refrain), usually scored for the full ensemble, alternate with modulating episodes of free thematic character, where a soloist predominates – he was at least the first composer to use it regularly in the fast movements of concertos […]”, writes Michael Talbot.
And since you are most likely familiar with Vivaldi’s most famous work a series of four concertos going by the name “The Four Seasons”, you will remember that the ritornello used in connection with easy to memorize themes confers to the different pieces their dramatic expression, these stylistic elements propel the different movements forward like a story teller’s voice sucks you deeper and deeper into a story. The same applies to this lovely violin concerto. His vivid imagination is reflected by his technique. “[Vivaldi] employed many special colouristic effects, such as muting and pizzicato, and paid exceptional attention for his time to the nuances of string articulation and bowing”, Talbot continues.
Vivaldi composed some 350 concertos for one solo instrument and strings, over 230 of them for violin. No to mention his religious music, his operas, his cantatas, his solo pieces, his symphonies and his chamber music. No wonder he did not worry to put a date on that score. The score actually presents a key to the piece’s origin. It is drawn from a collection sold in 1741 for a ridiculous price by Vivaldi to a nobleman, Count Tommaso Vinciguerra di Collalto. The Italian conductor Fabio Biondi has recorded them on an album under the title “Concerti Dell’addio” (Good-bye Concerts). He draws a link between these works and the last year in Vivaldi’s life. Vivaldi was in Vienna in 1741, a city mourning for its recently deceased emperor. The transaction took place a few weeks before Vivaldi’s death. Good-bye, cruel world.
I haven’t listened to Biondi’s recording and if you have, let me hear what you think about it. If you haven’t, I’d like to suggest the recording by the ensemble Gli Incogniti under Amandine Beyer.
© Charles Thibo