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Antonio Vivaldi
Sacred Music, Volume 10
Gloria (RV 589)
Nisi Dominus (RV 803)
Ostro picta (RV 642)
Gloria (By Giovanni Maria Ruggieri, RV Anh. 23)
The King's Consort Conducted By Robert King


The Four Seasons 
Archangelo Corelli
The Christmas Concerto
Arranged And Performed By Red Priest

Review By John Shinners
Click here to e-mail reviewer

   

CD Number: Hyperion CDA 66849

CD Number: Dorian 90317

 

  Here are two discs that address the classic tension between the ability and the desirability of doing something. Just because we can record Vivaldi's complete choral music, should we? Just because the absence of copyright means we can re-arrange his music to make it more "accessible," should we? In this case, the answers are definitive: a big yes to the first, a big no to the second.

Robert King and the King's Consort have been surveying Vivaldi's sacred choral music for the last several years. Here, in the final volume of ten, they offer his most famous choral work, the Gloria in D, coupled with two lesser known works and the earlier Gloria of the obscure Giovanni Maria Ruggieri that inspired Vivaldi's own piece.

As we have come to expect when King and his players turn their hand to any project, the music-making here is first-class all the way. King performs the Gloria with tremendously engaging energy that snaps you to attention from the opening notes and holds your interest to the end. The way he shapes vocal lines constantly refreshes a work you thought you knew. The soloists (sopranos Carolyn Sampson and Joanne Lunn, mezzo Joyce DiDonato) sing their hearts out and the orchestra plays dynamically with beautiful expression. This account must head to the top regions of the list of period-performance Glorias. Yes, I'll say it: it is a glorious Gloria.

But the revelation here is the Nisi Dominus (RV 803), the jewel in the crown of this disc. The Nisi Dominus -- or Psalm 126 (127) -- was attributed to Vivaldi only last year, just before this recording was made. Written in 1739, its distinction is the melodic invention and the rich palette of sound it employs, including a soprano, a mezzo soprano, a contralto, a viola d'amore, and the rarely heard chalumeau (an early clarinet) and "violino in tromba marina." The chalumeau accompanies mezzo Tuva Semmingsen in the work's central movement, "Cum dederit dederit dilectis suis somnum" ("For he has granted rest to those he loves"), a gentle, delightful lullaby. If butter made a sound, it would sound like a chalumeau. Coupled with Semmingsen's creamy mezzo, this sweet interlude is irresistible; I would buy the disc for these three minutes of music alone. It is followed by "Sicut sagittae in manu potentis" ("Like arrows in the hand of a powerful man"), whose martial character is underlined by the violin called "in tromba marina" -- a violin with a drone string that makes it rasp like a trumpet. Accompanying the bravura fireworks of Hilary Jones's contralto, this is stirring music.

The Nisi Dominus calls for the highest order of virtuosity from all three soloists. The vocal flourishes here sound like the kind of scale-defying acrobatics that mid-Baroque composers crafted to showcase the talents of castrati. Practically every movement in this 21-minute work will leave you breathless The Ostro picta (RV 642) is a shorter, quieter piece, an allegory contrasting earthly vanity and the Virgin Mary. It is beautifully sung by soprano Carolyn Sampson. Its last verse ("Linguis favete") is a gently leaping tune that is characteristic of Vivaldi's knack for catchy melody on display throughout this disc.

Ruggieri's Gloria is big and bold. Though it is subtle, you can hear how much Vivaldi learned from his predecessor.

Recorded in several London halls, sacred and secular, in 2002 and 2003, the works on this disc boast a clean, spacious, well-defined world of sound. Balances between soloists, choir, and orchestra are excellent throughout, and there is a very realistic sense of presence.

 

On The Other Hand....


Red Priest, who call themselves after the red-haired Vivaldi's nickname "il prete rosso," is a quartet (recorder, violin, harpsichord, and cello) that has lately been offering "arrangements" of baroque pieces. In his notes to their take on Vivaldi's Four Seasons, his most famous collection of concertos, recorder player Piers Adams attempts to justify their drastic re-working of the familiar, explaining that "[earnest attempts to re-create what an original performance might have sounded like have often run the risk of turning living art into a museum piece, and it sometimes takes a radical new view to re-appreciate the soul of a work." For them, discovering the "soul of the work" means serving it up as Vivaldi-Lite, tampering in perverse ways with tempi, which rev radically up and down like a car with a bad transmission, being staggeringly literal-minded about underscoring his extra-musical allusions (so that the barking dog subtly evoked in his original "Spring" all but has its nose in your crotch here), and -- most egregiously -- inserting willfully gratuitous musical additions throughout: a whiff of "Flight of the Bumblebee" in the Presto of "Summer," a late-50s rock ballad accompaniment to the Largo of "Winter," country music twangs in the Allegro of "Autumn," and -- I'm not making this up -- "G-d Save the Queen" in that same concerto's Adagio. If the cover didn't say otherwise, you might mistake this for one of Peter Schickele's P. D. Q. Bach parodies, except Schickele has wit. It's all very "crossover," very self-indulgent, and very dismissive of Vivaldi's greater artistry and the average listener's intelligence. Here, it is Red Priest's heavy-handed attempt at musical "improvement" rather than familiarity that breeds contempt. It's a shame, too, for the players in Red Priest are clearly talented. For instance, Piers Adams' recorder runs in the Allegro of "Winter" are breathtaking in their speed and accuracy. But it is all in vain.

The King's Consort beautiful multi-volume survey of Vivaldi's endless creativity demonstrates a lesson Red Priest needs to learn: if you play old standards well with empathy, respect, and understanding, there is no need to tamper perversely with what the composer wrote to make them accessible and enjoyable to modern ears.

 

 

Vivaldi (King's Consort)

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Vivaldi (Red Priest)

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