VIVALDI: Le quattro stagioni, op. 8/1-4. Concerto in B-flat, RV 173. Concerto in e, RV 277 "Il favorito." Concerto in E, RV 271 "L'amorosa."
Elizabeth Blumenstock (violin); Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra/Nicholas McGegan.
Philharmonia Baroque Productions PBP-03 TT: 75:30.

Punk Vivaldi. The ArkivMusic web site tells me there are at least 234 versions of The Four Seasons available, so the range and quality of interpretation varies considerably. From the HIP end of the spectrum, you have, in addition to McGegan, the choice of Harnoncourt, Hogwood, Pinnock, and Koopman, among many others. At the other end, you get the full-frontal modern orchestra of Stokowski, Ormandy, and Bernstein, with some really nice in-betweens of modern playing with reduced forces in Marriner, Scimone (particularly good), and Janigro. Whatever your interpretive preference, you're not strapped for choices.

Nicholas McGegan to me leads the HIP pack in the United States, which is saying something, if you consider the marvelous ensembles around, including the Boston Baroque and Apollo's Fire, among others. I like about McGegan not only his willingness to do the scholarly slog, but also his music-making, which, after all, is the point. If not for Trevor Pinnock, he'd be my favorite Baroque specialist.

For those of you used to hearing Decorous Vivaldi, this account will whomp you upside the head. If not the earliest piece of program music, The Four Seasons is certainly one of the more elaborate early examples. To make sure people got his intentions, Vivaldi attached to the score poems describing each season and full of images that translate well into music: the birds sing, thunder booms, lightning flashes, bagpipes play, shepherds and nymphs dance, and so on. Other recordings have provided the poems, but no other account has tried to render the pictures as vividly as McGegan. The "gentle zephyrs" murmuring in "Spring," for example, move so silkily, you feel them in the hair on your arms. You can see white lightning bolts zigzagging through a black sky. The opening of "Winter" isn't just a series of chords -- it's the essence of shivering, chattering cold. Throughout, McGegan favors near-staccato attacks as the default, and this results in a dancing energy. Soloist Elizabeth Blumenstock amazes with her intonation, electrifying fingerwork, and brilliant tone -- a perfect complement to McGegan's readings. The three "extra" concertos get the same treatment.

These four concerti, of course, belong to a larger group of twelve: Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'invenzione, op. 8 (the strife between harmony and invention). I've got nothing against The Four Seasons, but you don't really appreciate Vivaldi until you hear the entire opus -- the brilliant variety of invention within a restricted expressive range. There are good recordings of this. I like Scimone and Janigro, but McGegan should complete the set. He understands Vivaldi. I believe he'd come up with something extraordinary.

S.G.S. (January 2012)