Two Tales of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons"

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Composer: Antonio Vivaldi
Work: The Four Seasons
Performer: Giuliano Carmignola
Orchestra: Venice Baroque Orchestra
Label: Sony Classical

Composer: Antonio Vivaldi
Work: The Four Seasons
Performer: Salvatore Accardo
Orchestra: I Solisti Delle Settimane Internazionali Di Napoli
Label: Philips Classics (XRCD2)

Despite the numerous recordings of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, I have never been tired of this most enduring of classical music pieces; a masterful composition that both fits wonderfully well as a background musical backdrop, and as a reflective sonic study for the keenest of audiophiles. There is never a shortage of recordings one can draw upon from an incredible list of violinists who each display their unique approaches: the bold, authoritative strokes of Vengerov; the aristocratic and shimmering precision of Shaham; the individualistic and poetic Sophie-Mutter etc. For this review, I have chosen two accounts whose styles are greatly contrasted and yet quite enjoyable.

When I realized that there was an XRCD2 version of Salvatore Accardo’s venerated version recorded live at the fifth Cremona Festival, I did not hesitate to procure myself a copy. JVC’s XRCD (Extended Resolution CD) technology has always impressed me greatly because one does not have to get an SACD or any other type of special player to decode its music. The recordings in this format are given an almost crystalline treatment through JVC’s patented K2 process which removes much of the “digital” harshness and instills an analog-like naturalness that makes music always listenable and involving to the ears. My greatest caveat though is the excessive pricing of these discs- they cost more than twice the price of a regular disc and sometimes the accompanying packaging is insufficient and uninformative. Yet the sound, and it is the sound that beckons me.

Firstly there is Salvatore Accardo's fine rendition to think of. Accardo uses a different violin for each of the seasons and the playing is extremely fine- the rhythm and pacing being neither too fast, nor slow. Summer is as pleasant and expressive as can be, while winter is portrayed as cold and brisk. One can never guess that this is a live recording (little audible intrusions from the crowd). This is amongst one of my two favourite Four Seasons’ interpretations- the other one being Alan Loveday’s classic rendition with Neville Marriner and the ASMF. Loveday’s version is very fresh sounding, with every note played as if this would be the definitive interpretation. Accardo’s is similar but perhaps with a little more showmanship and bravura in the passages that demand greater virtuosity (the third movement and presto from “Summer”). The recording is warm, and quite solid; brilliant musical colours splashed across a great palette of first class orchestral accompaniment. The use of the harpsichord is clearly distinguishable and quite pleasant to hear. This is indeed a definitive version for those who like a modern instruments account.

So it comes to no surprise that when Carmignola’s account (Sony Classical) with the Venice Baroque Orchestra is played right after this on my system, there couldn’t be two more different styles being contrasted. Whereas Accardo’s version is sunny and expressive, Carmignola’s style is cold and impulsive. Witness the first movement of “Spring”; Accardo presents it with a grand gesture full of strong symphonic underlines whereas the Sony recording is full of tension- the movement played at a fast, almost frenetic pace. For period instruments, there are many great accounts of Vivaldi’s masterpiece to choose from: Jeanne Lamon with Tafelmusik (also on Sony), Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, and the English Concert led by Trevor Pinnock. However, let not Carmignola’s brisk and precise style make you think any lesser of his interpretation, for it is nothing but a strong contender for a most individualistic and satisfying account. This orchestra and its lead violinist KNOW this music very well- it is in their blood (after all, Carmignola was born and raised on the Veneto- the region surrounding Venice). If anybody lays claim to playing Vivaldi the way the master may have wanted it, then Carmignola would be first choice. The Venice ensemble despite playing so vividly, never loses control of the musical moment. Instead of the long-drawn, sweet strokes from other violinists, Carmignola’s short and aggressive attacks on each note helps to remind us that after all, the Four Seasons is clearly a product of the baroque age, in a time when orchestras were smaller and the playing much tighter and iconoclastic. There is no sense of the music here being ever over-romanticized for any reason. Carmignola has recorded this same piece with another orchestra, the Sonatori De La Gioiosa Marca, on a FIM (First Impression Music) SACD/CD recording which is in the demonstration class. Although the FIM recording is simply more brilliant, the orchestra is no match for the refined nature of the Venice Baroque players. The Sony recording is very vivid, only being just a touch bass shy. There is no sense of listener fatigue and is quite enjoyable in its own way.

By now, despite so many choices out there, it is clear that the Four Seasons continues to be a popular musical masterpiece- one that can stand up to repeated listenings. Indeed, this work deserves much more than being played as background dinner music or for television commercials. For those who multiple recordings of this classic, another one simply adds to the joy of listening to it again with a different degree of freshness. For those who would like to purchase their first recording, then I highly recommend you these two discs- either one of them will satisfy you for many in-home hi-fi “performances” to come!

Salvatore Accardo and the I Solisti Delle Settimane Internazionali Di Napoli

Performance: 10/10
Recording: 10/10

Giuliano Carmignola and the Venice Baroque Orchestra

Performance: 9/10
Recording: 8/10

Reviewer: Jason Liu (Jan/05)
Hi Jason,

Enjoyed your reviews! Can you tell me where in the Toronto area you got the Accardo/XRCD2 recording? - Thanks, Mark.
I would also recommend Neville Marriner's recording with the Academy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields (with Alan Loveday on the violin).