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Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" Revitalized

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This is far from a run-of-the-mill, perfunctory interpretation of The Four Seasons--meant for listeners in search of vibrancy and bold splashes of color in their favorite Vivaldi piece. A must-buy!

So you think you've heard one version of Antonio Vivaldi's (1678 - 1741) overplayed favorite, The Four Seasons, you've heard them all?

Well, think again.

Care for some sparkling, tender, vigorous and colorful playing of the world's favorite classical piece? Are you ready for a refreshingly invigorating interpretation of the same?

Then please welcome this wonderful and different version, not just another addition to the vast number of Four Seasons recordings already out there.

Le Quattro Stagioni / The Four Seasons.

German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter got together with a group of young Norwegians, the Trondheim Soloists, to produce this CD. Mutter does double duty as solo violinist as well as conductor. Mutter was inspired by her favorite painter, Gotthard Graubner, whom she thinks "was on the phone [to Vivaldi]... several times a day,"* and who uses color in his paintings as a theme in itself.

Lest the more disdainful dismiss this and the companion work of Tartini as mere "lightweight greatest hits pieces," Mutter dares those critics to play them as audition pieces.

She continues: ". . . these pieces contain no hurdle that a good music student couldn't clear as a teenager. But art involves more than just playing a piece quickly, cleanly and accurately. Art consists in investing the score with a soul. Vivaldi's Four Seasons is a unique celebration of life, a veritable riot of colour. It takes a sensitive violinist to bring out this riot of colour in the form of a tone-painting."*

Very well put, and so true. Here Mutter proves beyond a doubt her singularity and importance not just as a truly world-class violinist but as an innovative interpreter, too. This CD clinches her position in my short, personal list of top violinists today. Conductor Herbert von Karajan certainly realized the depth of talent possessed by his protégé, and we already have much evidence of that in her previous recordings, yet none more revealing perhaps than what she has accomplished in this CD.

Some highlights:

Mutter and company bring out a tenderness I've never associated with this piece before, best exemplified in track 2, Spring / Largo e pianissimo sempre. The large, sweeping notes in track 3, Spring / Danza pastorale have rarely sounded more graceful, with intriguing exchanges between the violin and the deep double bass.

I have also detected a fire possessed by no other Four Seasons recording I've heard so far. To wit: the raging thunderstorms have never been more frightening than the ones portrayed in track 6, Summer / Presto.

Mutter's pure, shimmering sound shines beautifully in track 5, Summer / Adagio-Presto, with its study in contrasts between the gentle and caressing first violin (Mutter) and the loud, frenetic strings of the Trondheim Soloists. Listen to the brief "birdsong" passages in track 4, Summer / Allegro non molto, for the sheer elegance and delicacy of Mutter's violin.

The beginning (Ballo e canto de' villanelli / Dance and song of country folk) of Autumn / Allegro in track 7 shows a greater than usual contrast in vigor between the various sections in the movement. One of my fave bits is the second Allegro (track 9), with its rousing and elegant La caccia / The hunt at the top, a change of pace from the previous sleepy Adagio molto. Mutter and the Trondheim group paint bold, assertive strokes here--see if you can keep yourself from beating time to the movement's captivating meter.

Listen next to the rapid, shivering strings that open the Winter concerto, / Allegro non molto (track 10). Mutter's brief light and fluid runs are little thrills in themselves, and are followed by the sweetly sad melody of the Largo, played against the constant drumming of the pizzicato (plucked strings) raindrops. The final Allegro finishes things up with initial slow, then sudden, frenetic final passages.

Sonata in sol minore "Il trillo del diavolo" / Sonata in G minor "Devil's Trill".

The second piece is one I had never heard of before, the Sonata in G minor "Devil's Trill", by Giuseppe Tartini (1692 - 1770). It's much shorter than the Vivaldi work, but you'd be hard put to accuse it of being mere "filler" material.

It begins with the deeply moving Larghetto affettuoso, which threatens to make me weep in some passages, and sounds as if it were composed by a 19th-century Romantic. Mutter masterfully sustains and connects the notes here while imbuing each phrase with an expressive tone color.

The Allegro moderato exudes a more playful mood that nevertheless retains an underlying poignancy, with Mutter all over the place with her easily rendered intervals, supported by the rest of the strings and the crisp, clear notes of the harpsichord every now and then.

A brief Andante follows, once again a tender bit of music, that leads to the breathtaking final Allegro assai - Andante - Allegro assai - Andante - Allegro assai - Cadenza - Adagio (whew!), which goes through a gamut of emotions through the use of varied playing techniques. The cadenza sounds as if more than one violin is at work, and a most impressive series of passages it is.

In both these pieces, Mutter manages to create her usual exquisite, ethereal, yet full, silver tone, with flowing runs, and light, fluttering trills on her Stradivarius that bring to vivid life the lovely, ear-catching and affecting melodies of both Vivaldi and Tartini.

The Trondheim Soloists.

As shown here, great musicianship can make an ensemble chamber group sound more than the sum of its parts. Founded by Norwegian violinist Bjarne Fiskum in 1988, The Trondheim Soloists comprises some very gifted young students as well as professional musicians. What really impresses me is the fullness of their sound despite their numbers being a mere fraction of a full-strength symphony orchestra. I detect none of that anemic sound that has always kept me leery of chamber

On the other hand, Mutter precisely chose to play with a smaller group of musicians instead of an eighty-member orchestra, the better to bring out the more delicate shadings in Vivaldi's work. This turns out to be a most astute decision on her part.

Final Words.

Simply put, I have yet to hear a more exciting version than this one. I can only beg my kind readers to give this CD a listen ASAP. Despite the hundreds of interpretations now available, none have stood out as worthy of being more than just another pleasant accompaniment to Sunday brunch, as each seems none too different from all the rest.

Truth to tell, Mutter and the Trondheim Soloists' effervescent Fours Seasons is the first to awaken in me a renewed interest in Vivaldi's piece, which had already grown dull to my sensibility with umpteen "new" versions over so many years.

Painter Graubner with Mutter

Those listeners seeking wallpaper type music with a routine rendition of The Four Seasons can pass this up. For the rest, I can't recommend this disc more strongly--an absolutely marvelous and thrilling CD you should take home with you tout de suite. You won't regret it.


CD Notes:

*From the brief interview included in the liner notes.

(As with every recent recording, Mutter dedicates the disc to the memory of her husband, Dr. Detlef Wunderlich.)

(Mutter and The Trondheim Soloists have toured Germany, France, Denmark and Norway, playing the pieces presented on this disc.)

Antonio Vivaldi The Four Seasons / Le Quattro Stagioni

1 - 3 SPRING, Concerto in E major, op. 8 No. 1

4 - 6 SUMMER, Concerto in G minor, op. 8 No. 2

7 - 9 AUTUMN, Concerto in F major, op. 8 No. 3

10 - 12 WINTER, Concerto in F minor, op. 8 No. 4

Giuseppe Tartini

13 - 16 Sonata in G Minor "Devil's Trill" / Il Trillo del Diavolo


Bjarne Fiskum, leader

Oÿyvind Gimse, violoncello

Knut Johannesen, harpsichord

, soloist and conductor

Deutsche Grammophon 289 463 259-2 (c) 1999

Total Running Time: 62' 50"

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