I was a fan of Café Zimmermann's traversal of Bach concertos on the Alpha label. Their latest release is of Vivaldi concertos from the second book of L'Estro Armonico with two bonuses: RV 414 in G Major for cello and RV 544, a programmatic number entitled Il Proteo o sia il Mondo al rovescio. Needless to say, for many Vivaldi lovers, these may not be your first recordings of these works.
So, how is it?
My own history with Vivaldi's opus 3 collection started with Pinnock leading the English Concert on DG Archiv. In fact, it was among the very first baroque or classical recordings my parents purchased for me (the other was Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin performed by Itzhak Perlman). I immediately liked the concertos, and two of my favorites came from the second CD: #s 10 and 11, both in minor keys.
If Corelli's known today mostly for his opus 5 sonatas for violin and basso continuo, it is fair to say Vivaldi's opus 3, for different combinations of violins and cello as soloists, ranks similarly for him. His later collection, op. 8, would be the only one to get a similar buzz from critics and connoisseurs. While Vivaldi is better known as a composer of 3-movement forms with a single soloist, the concertos in L'estro armonico are perhaps a little more experimental.
As a comparison, I did audition my versions by L'arte dell'Arco, Europa Galante, and Accademia Bizantina in addition to Pinnock. There's a lot to like from each one, but despite any gross short comings, they all don't quite fully satisfy. The Hogwood version with Arte dell'Arco has some interesting outbursts at times from the violins, but otherwise is a sad contender, having been poorly recorded in too naked a dry acoustic. Biondi and Company are well-captured in a favorable acoustic, but after time, I feel Biondi is trying to hard to be inventive in ways that seem over thought-out. Pinnock's version as you may guess is straightforward, but the soloists have a hard time escaping the otherwise full sound of the English Concert. Dantone and company do a good job with interpretation, but the recording doesn't well-favor the soloists, at least not equally. They can get lost, and some have a sound that wears too thin in spots.
To be fair, Zimmermann only is offering us half the book at the current time, but has some good things going for it.
The first track opens extremely well. Nothing cute, nothing about "sound emerging from an abyss" (looking at you Fabio!), it's just straight-on strong violin playing. The acoustic and forward-sound of the instruments is superb, and the distance between soloists and back-up strings seems nicely done. The stereo separation between the two violin soloists in this rendition is so nice that I actually appreciated for the first time Vivaldi's echo effect. CZ is performing on Guadagnini instruments, culled from various sources, to give a nod to another well-regarded violin maker after perhaps better known icons Stradavari and Amati.
There was a lot of creativity to admire in the other versions I mentioned. Some folks used lutes in the continuo, some changed tempo, some really emphasized dynamic contrasts. CZ, as with their Bach, takes a far more conservative approach. Some ornamentation takes place, around cadences, but in the slow movements, where improvisation of the line seems like easy picking, they take things a little safer.
In a few spots, I've noticed some timing glitches or turns of phrase that might have been tighter. Petr Skalka is CZ's cello soloist, and holds his own in the concertos where Vivaldi chooses to feature the cello.
The best part for me about this new release is the clear delineation between the violin soloists. They each have a nice sounding instrument, too, the collective that never comes off "too thin." That said, this release still isn't my desert island opus 3. This is a welcome addition to my collection, but I'll gladly try what's offered perhaps (if we're lucky) someday in the future from the likes of an Onofri or Minasi. In short, this release possesses every bit of the quality that CZ provided in their Bach interpretations before this.