Featured Selection: Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and Vivaldi
The MHS Review 395 Vol. 11 No. 17, 1987
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Rereading old copies of the Musical Heritage Review, I can see from looking at the "Letters" pages that one composer's name in particular gets flung around a lot: Antonio Vivaldi. People either seem to dote on his immense output without exception, or to have absolutely no use for his music, calling it dull and formulaic.
It goes both ways, of course: a lot of Vivaldi's music does come off as musical wallpaper (considering the vast amount he wrote, it's a wonder much more of it doesn't), and a lot is just plain overplayed, The Four Seasons chief in that group. After dozens of recordings by string groups of all sizes, not to mention arrangements for everything from brass quintets to koto ensembles, it's not surprising that even the hardiest of masterpieces would lose a bit of its bloom!
But in my own experience, for every Vivaldi work I hear that does seem like routine baroque note-spinning, I'll hear another that makes me realize once more what an intensely imaginative and revolutionary figure he was, certainly in the history of concerto writing. He virtually redefined and explored all the possibilities of the relationships of solo instruments and orchestra. His imagination extended to the instruments themselves, many of which--trumpet, oboe, clarinet, cello--had never been exploited as concerto soloists before him. Maybe that's what attracts so many people to Vivaldi in the first place: the sense of the sheer joy of creating new sounds that his music often conveys.
One of the instruments taken up by Vivaldi was, oddly enough, the flute. Vivaldi's op. 10 collection of six flute concerti, published in 1728, represents the first such collection any where, according to his redoubtable biographer Pincherle. Although five of the works were originally conceived for other instruments, the entire set made up a varied and delightful group of pieces that put the still-developing instrument through its paces. The "Goldfinch" Concerto has always been frequently played, but the tremendous increase in the flute's popularity during the last decade or so didn't hurt any of these concerti a bit. They've frequently been recorded as a group (all six fit neatly onto one record, which has made them almost, but not quite, as ubiquitous as The Four Seasons).
Michala Petri's recording is surely as pleasing as any available. In it, the "flute boom" and the "original instrument" movement intersect; the concerti are performed on recorders as opposed to the transverse (held sideways) flute. This could very well have happened in Vivaldi's time, when both instruments were current and composers were very complaisant about having their music performed by whatever was at hand.
A flutist once told me she attributed some of the flute's popularity to its "sexy" sound. The recorder, if not sexless, has a fresh and innocent quality that adds to the charm of Vivaldi's inspiration, especially in the talented hands of Michala Petri. The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields has been a bit obscured lately by the period-instrument bands, but their sprightly, pellucid performances show that modern strings still have much to offer in baroque music. Even if you're one of MHS' Vivaldi-haters, I'd call this recording a must!