More Fruits from Vivaldi's Cornucopia
The MHS Review 404, VOL. 12, NO.8• 1988
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The fertility of Vivaldi's musical imagination never fails to strike this listener. To me, Vivaldi was one of music's great "farmers," tilling his field tirelessly to produce huge crops of delectables for posterity's table. Oddly, and despite the popularity of the man's works, he has detractors.
People who notice only similar formal procedures and not differences of detail sometimes accuse Italy's "Red Priest" (who was a cleric with red hair) of composing the same concerto hundreds of times. They might as well accuse the Viennese classicists of composing the same sonata hundreds of times, so ubiquitous was that form in the hands of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. But because the works of those distinguished fellows are constantly analyzed, rehearsed, performed, and even memorized, their differences are both noticed and deeply appreciated. Poor Vivaldi, only his The Four Seasons enjoys such treatment--thus to be deemed a masterpiece--while so much else of his is declared to be in the also-ran category. What a misservice!
Hearing Mr. Schiff, Ms. Brown, and their redoubtable colleagues in these otherwise unknown concerti is to be overcome, once again, with Vivaldi's incredible creativity and originality. He was one of the first to liberate the violoncello from its role as accompanist to the upper parts of the music of his day. The earlier invention of the basso continuo principle meant that every piece of instrumental music had to have a continuous bass line played by two musicians, a keyboard player who "realized" harmonies above it and a cellist who doubled it resonantly. By writing some 30 concerti (and at least 10 sonatas) for the cello, Vivaldi emancipated the instrument from its place at the bottom of chamber ensembles and the orchestra and helped to develop virtuosity among its players. The results are stunning.
Melodic ideas of every conceivable sort bubble over tile surface like a percolating pot of fresh coffee. The comparison is not inappropriate, coffee having been introduced in Europe during the 17th century. Viewed then, and in the succeeding century, as an intoxicant with few of alcohol's side effects, it not only entered society but literature, art, and music (the great Bach even wrote a cantata, "Schweigt stille," S. 211, about breaking the coffee habit!).
Digression aside, Vivaldi's Cello Concerti prove hls powers of invention to be apparently limitless as striking ideas follow each other with the deftest touches of harmony and instrumental ingenuity. His outer movements are often rugged and vigorous, vibrating with controlled energy. His inner movements are touchingly sweet, filled with graceful arabesques and poignant sighs. Permitting the soloist to sing through his instrument, they contrast with their partners most graciously.
Three of these wonderful works are in minor keys, two in major. Their tonalities provide more than additional contrasts. In fact, they permit an extraordinary range of modulations, or changes of key to enrich the aural experience.
So, the Viva1dian cornucopia spreads its produce lavishly before us. Any takers?
Review on page 1 Vivaldi: Cello Conceni