L’Arte dell’Arco link to iTunes releases by this ensemble under Federico Guglielmo has released on the Brilliant Classics label two complete collections by Vivaldi - the Cello Concertos with Francesco Galligioni and the Oboe Concertos with Pieluigi Fabretti. I have up to this point had a bit of a love/hate relationship with this ensemble. On the positive, they’re not shy about their recording projects and have recorded what others have left behind, their Tartini collection comes to mind. The cello and oboe works of Vivaldi, too, are remarkable, because already good examples are in the canon of available recordings. Their recordings have sometimes come off as a tad rustic, which I also like. The recording that has challenged me most is their recording of Vivaldi’s opus 3, under Christopher Hogwood; the recording quality suffers from being miked too close in an unsympathetic space, and the equality of playing between players isn’t at a consistent quality.
A friend of mine urged me to try these newer releases, promising that the group has matured, and I believe him to be correct. The cello collection I auditioned first—four CDs in total. The balance of sound is well-done, with a clear harpsichord in the mix, a rich bass line, and an acoustic signature that supports the music well. The ensemble as a whole is up for playing with energy and never seems to fatigue in maximizing Vivaldi’s dramatic elements. Tempos are well-chosen for my taste, quick in some regards. Even though I own many of Vivaldi’s concertos already, I didn’t mind adding another collection to my trove; for one, it’s done with consistent high quality (a reference in fact), and second, comparisons are always apt, especially with solo concertos.
Galligioni was not terribly familiar to me; it turns out he’s a sensitive, energetic partner in this affair, and does a good job I think in traversing Vivaldi’s canon of concertos. One example worthy of mention is the A minor concerto, RV 401, which appears on the second disc. AdA takes a very slow, quietly dramatic opening to this work, then once it’s time for the cello to enter, they take things up to the Allegro non molto. Not every ensemble will treat this introduction as such; in other movements, they add unexpected accents, especially with the lute in the basso continuo emerging through the texture, which simply is a lot of fun. Another is the D minor concerto, RV 407. Despite the ensemble going at a breakneck speed to start, I can't help but admire the athleticism of the ensemble and the consistency of articulation by the soloist. Then, they're not afraid to pause just a bit for a more tender reprise. It may not be at the same level of drama that Ensemble Explorations adopted, but it's still enjoyable - just for different reasons.
I’m a fan of Vivaldi’s concertos being performed with some interpretive license that raises the quality of the results; unlike the music of Bach, I don’t think Vivaldi’s written scores survive as well without an appropriate measure of drama. It doesn’t hurt Bach in cases, but with Vivaldi, it helps to amplify the affective gestures.
The oboe collection spans 3 discs. Many of the signatures of the cello release are relevant to this set, including the importance of drama in amplifying the affect of Vivaldi’s music. Taking the G minor concerto, RV 460 (disc 1) as my first departure, the ensemble is clearly one per part, which limits the dramatic energy just a bit. The soundstage is well presented as is the clarity of the soloist (off center, left). I cannot say that the oboe tone is the most beautiful I’ve heard, although Mr. Fabretti is technically gifted. One pet peeve I have with slow movements is adopting a tempo that is too slow (I often feel ensembles can go too slow and rarely do I encounter one that goes too fast). That said, the middle movement of RV 460 is taken likely faster than most would do, but I think it really works and helps the oboist phrase the lines appropriately.
As a point of comparison, the Academy of Ancient Music under Christopher Hogwood with Frank de Bruine adopt a far quieter and more gentle middle movement for RV 460. They do, however, end up shaving a little time off the one featuring Fabretti. Their first movement is slower; but their third is faster. De Bruine is a little more suave in tone, and likewise is more daring in ornamenting the line. The third movement is a favorite of mine, full of typical Vivaldian flare, including descending running lines across descending-fifth sequences. The AAM sounds tighter in their quicker attack; I also like the leaner string texture of the AdA. I could go with either approach, although I think the AAM’s approach is more successful due to the confidence from the oboe playing.
For one last comparison, I’ll take another A minor concerto, RV 463, which appears on disc 2; I also have this concerto performed by Zefiro under Alfredo Bernardini (himself an oboe player). Zefiro’s sound world has more reverb and consequently sounds a little richer and more luxurious. They adopt a slower tempo, too, for the outer movements. AdA is far more extrovert and humorous with their approach in the major-moded finale. I appreciate the energy, compared to Zefiro. Style aside, it’s Bernardini’s sound and range of color on the oboe that for me stands out. It’s difficult to pick a “winner” between the two performances; in my face, I’d like to hear Bernardini as guest with AdA.
For me, the AdA ultimately was a treat because I became exposed to some of Vivaldi’s less well-known concertos for the oboe with this collection. There may be questions about authenticity, and all the concertos, I will say, don’t cary the same gravitas when it comes to quality. Some sound as if they were written to fulfill a function; others come across as special works of art.
For me, the oboe collection is not as strong as the one featuring cello concertos. It’s not to say the soloist, Mr. Fabretti is incapable of beautiful sounds — the middle movement of RV 459 is proof enough that he is. That said, he may not be as expressive an oboist as de Bruine or Bernardini. I felt Mr. Galligioni held his own a little better against the likes of Coin or Dieltiens when I made comparisons with the cello concertos.
I believe these two releases prove to me that L’Arte dell’Arco ensemble has matured to the point where their artistic aims and technical abilities no longer hold them back from first rate performance comparisons. There’s enough to like between both collections that overlaps with other Vivaldi concertos releases will likely be complementary. That said, I know I didn’t have absolute complete readings of this many concertos by Vivaldi in these categories; buying these releases will provide you with a fantastic reference to begin, if you like what samples you try. The ensemble does vary the continuo keyboards between concertos which I really admire (using harpsichord and positive organ). Noticing “different” or “new” things between these recorded concertos with ones I am already long familiar has been the most fun. In almost every case, I could agree with multiple interpretations which only helped me appreciate the music more.