The latest offering from Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra is an intriguing combination of best-loved and under-appreciated violin concerti from Antonio Vivaldi. Longtime collaborator Elizabeth Blumenstock is the indefatigable soloist (all seven compositions were recorded over a three-day stint at Skywalker Sound, Nicasio, California). Hanneke van Proosdij admirably takes care of the keyboard requirements (the organ is especially welcome in the opening movement of RV 271, so at one with the overarching mood of innocent love) while Daniel Taylor’s theorbo contributions are the epitome of discretion.
Recording engineer David v.R. Bowles has once again (cross-reference below) faithfully captured every measure of art, breath taken and string pretested to produce an engaging “you are in the thick of it” result.
Who could ask for anything more?
“The Four Seasons” are so universally known, performed and recorded, it may well be hard to imagine that there is much left “new” to say. Nonetheless, McGegan and Blumenstock make these readings their own and seem cut from the same cloth—noticeably in the tempo department.
The opening “Spring” has compelling brightness if somewhat too vertical architecture until the heat turns up. Curiously, the somewhat distant placement of the tutti in the “Largo” produces some uncomfortable moments while the protagonists truly dominate. Blumenstock infuses the finale with commendable joy and completely satisfying excursions into the realm of individual ornamentation.
“Summer” begins as a vrai scorcher before sizzling with fire. Delectable are the soloist’s ideally executed trills and fantastic decay; not so wonderful (to these ears: such are the matters of taste) is an unwanted portamento and jazzy wail. The first incidence of letting the harpsichord’s ring have the last word is marvellously inventive and unexpected, but soon becomes predictably tired in subsequent movements. McGegan and his talented charges serve up the “Presto” in such a thrilling manner that even Blumenstock is almost overwhelmed with their unrelenting energy.
Purposely starting the “Fall” harvest in a surprisingly casual manner has its payoff in the sensitivity that pours through the mournful contrasting section. A touch more near-reckless abandon between the violin and cello would be most welcome. Three cheers to the continuo for defining misterioso without once wallowing throughout the “Adagio molto.” Brutal attacks and no nonsense gunshots give Blumenstock a heady backdrop upon which to scurry about and demonstrate her mastery of rapid-fire technique.
The icy bridges created as “Winter” arrived immediately evoked visions of Dracula at his chilliest—not least of which when the devilish violin positively flew through the solo passagework. The ensuing “Largo” was the ideal foil led once again by McGegan’s innate ability to find then maintain the perfect tempo. The famed set concluded with a walk on the wild side of affected phrasing that seemed out of place with all that came so compellingly before. No matter: the last chord’s bite and verve was unanimity personified.
The three works that completed the CD were in many ways superior to Vivaldi’s more programmatic essays. RV 375 was nothing short of superb. Here, Blumenstock gave a master class of bow control and impeccable phrasing (fast and furious or impassioned yet delicate) that were a joy to behold. McGegan went far beyond merely accompanying, shaping the harmonic structure where so many others just play the notes and crafting a soundscape that employed wood, snaps and stereophonic effects that will delight any set of speakers or headphones.
Il favorito fared almost as well, needing a dash more relax in the opener and surety of “speech” in the underpinnings of the “Andante.”
L’amoroso featured carefree, if fleeting, love in the “Allegro” then wanted a touch more spontaneity infused into the otherwise heartfelt “Cantabile.” But everything came together in the closing “Allegro,” which exuded happiness and antiphonal joy before a few precious seconds of studio air finished off the proceedings, permitting all to savour the artistry and skill so honestly shared. JWR