Back in 2006, DG Archiv shamefully published an album simply titled "Vivaldi: Concerti" by the Venice Baroque Orchestra under Andrea Marcon, featuring DG artist and violinist Giuliano Carmignola. Archiv as a label, at least in the 1980s when I discovered them, had some class and authority. They were publishing some really good artists (MAK, English Concert) and good music. You can't blame a company for marketing a product, but come on... the packing does no good in letting folks know anything useful about the music. "Why these concertos?" I'm one of the suckers that bought this up. Must have a been a slow month for Vivaldi.
VBO is one of those period orchestras that plays with at least a few people to a part: 4/4/2/2/1/1/1, plenty rich in continuo, and at a so-called Venetian pitch, 440 Hz. They never impress me; it's not that they are bad, but let's be honest: they're used/abused as a backup band. They play all the right notes, but the musical direction lacks any outstanding feature. That's not necessarily bad, just safe. Just let it be known, just because they're Italians doesn't mean they make the same kind of impact as IGA (il Giardino Armonico) or Europa Galante. Carmignola's contribution here isn't bad, but he still remains my NJFV (Not John's Favorite Violinist), however hard he tries. What really rubbed me foully wasn't the music at all, but again the marketers. They hired the infamous Olivier Fourés to write the liner notes, which granted are translated, but are so chock full of modifiers and $25 words that the music cannot compete.
So vast a corpus represents the most monumental collection of violin works in the whole history of music... Really? He later tells us that so many of Vivaldi's works aren't heard today; even later, he admits that the music on this record hasn't even been recorded before. That has some shock value, for sure, but let's be honest. What are the reasons these works haven't been recorded before, sir? Is it they were just found? Or is it because they are simply too difficult to play? (Or maybe, just maybe, they aren't as strong as the hundreds of others that have been recorded--just maybe.) Here's another money quote: The diversity of the writing is little short of phenomenal: RV 217 begins with a fugato, RV 325 exploits the device of echo effects... Phenomenal trash, indeed. RV 217 is certainly not one of Vivaldi's strongest works; it comes across to my ears in what I might term Vivaldi's modern style, which wasn't his strongest period. The writing is lighter, but the main themes are anemic against the mostly high-pitched solo passages. Starting with a theme, a so-called "fugato" isn't that unusual in Vivaldi, and I'd hardly label it as diverse. Echo effects? They come a dime a dozen in baroque music, Vivaldi included. After reading all the liner notes, you feel as if you have stumbled upon some of the world's most fascinating musical treasures. Treasures or not, the playing doesn't match the hype either. The aforementioned RV 217's slow movement, for instance, gives space for highlighting affect from the orchestra, but instead, the poor saps have to play almost academically, to allow "room" for affect from soloist Carmignola. His playing, in turn, comes across as sappy, despite the technical achievement and a nice sound. While the album highlights Vivaldi's lesser known concerti, the music isn't as consistently bad as my mood might portray. But every piece, and within the collection, every movement, isn't as extraordinary and monumental as the DG marketers might pay Mr. Fourés have you believe. Despite playing on historical instruments, the DG Archiv folks ought to have been more honest with us. Let the VBO breathe somewhat; let natural balance prevail (instead of the ultra-close miking of Mr. Carmignola), and for goodness sake, lay off the honey when providing liner notes. There's an old adage that Vivaldi didn't write hundreds of concertos. He instead wrote one: and simply arranged it multiple times. That's both unfair to Vivaldi and to musical history. But Vivaldi's formulaic writing takes on reference when Fourés quoted Vivaldi as saying, and I'm paraphrasing here, "I can write concertos faster than copyists can copy them out." Indeed. RV 303 is such an example. The solo writing is nice, but the overall form of the work does take on the stench of something re-worked. It's a method that might have worked when touting your wares in a new city traveling, but here, it's almost an embarrassment. The only way I can think any audience would have cared for RV 303 was that the themes were hum-worthy, lifted almost verbatim from one of Vivaldi's dramatic productions. While Carmingnola and friends wager that we might simply notice the stronger solo writing and ignore the weak themes, I can't help but loathe the slow movements, which are all too often played too slowly and milked inside the microphone, leaving behind a saccharine sweet aftertaste. For something new as background music, knock yourself out. For a Vivaldi enthusiast, you won't miss much here.