Thursday, July 4, 2019

An “Educational Edition” of Vivaldi from Chicago

from the Web page created by Camerata Chicago for the purchase of the recording being discussed

The latest release from the Chicago-based chamber orchestra Camerata Chicago is an “Educational Edition” of Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. This is a two-CD package, the second CD presenting the four concertos that begin Vivaldi’s Opus 8 collection Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (the contest between harmony and invention). The first CD is what makes this particular offering “educational;” and it is entitled “Elements, Characters, Poetry & Music.” This amounts to a movement-by-movement “background account” to guide the listener through the programmatic infrastructure of the concertos, over the course of which each discussion of a movement is followed by the recording of the movement played in its entirety.

All background material was provided by Camerata Chicago’s Music Director, Drostan Hall; and it is read by Steve Robinson. Hall also conducts the performances, and the solo passages are performed by seventeen-year-old Amelia Piscitelli. The background CD is one hour in duration.

I gather from the accompanying booklet that Camerata Chicago does not limit its repertoire to “early music,” meaning that “historically-informed performance” of pre-Classical music is probably not a priority. I must therefore confess that, by virtue of living in the city of San Francisco, my opportunities to listen to such historically-informed performances of that repertoire significantly outweigh those afforded by more “general-purpose” ensembles. Nevertheless, my many occasions for listening to this collection of four concertos has included the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall; and I like to think that I am capable of being fair in taking such performances on their own terms.

Nevertheless, in the midst of those many past experiences, I have to say that neither Hall’s approach to interpretation nor Piscitelli’s solo work prompted me to sit up and take notice. Piscitelli can certainly be impressive in giving fiery accounts of her Allegro passages. However, in the slower passages in which one can appreciate sustained individual tones, her intonation and phrasing tend to leave much to be desired. Furthermore, regardless of the circumstances under which this music was originally performed, it is hard for a contemporary ear to ignore stimulating connotations of “jamming” when experiencing a solid account of this music in concert. Every now and then a recording will come along in which such a lively spirit of making music can be appreciated, but this recording is not one of them.

The background material definitely does justice to the music itself. To be fair, however, one can just as easily read that content in the booklet, which also includes a reproduction (translated into English) of the texts of the poems that Vivaldi wrote as the “program” for the music. Those texts are recited on the first CD. However, I much prefer the Philharmonia Baroque release, whose booklet provides the texts of the poems in both Italian and English translation. In this case fairness dictates that I “come clean” as a long-time subscriber to the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale, which included the concert at which I could read Vivaldi’s poems in the program book while the four concertos were being performed. (I also have to confess that I much prefer the background material that Chorale director Bruce Lamott offers in his pre-concert talks. His approach to content is far more refreshing than Hall’s text, and his delivery is more rhetorically compelling that Robinson’s reading of Hall’s text.)

Nevertheless, the final “fair disclaimer” is the recognition that there are few places in the United States that situate Vivaldi in such a vivid light so consistently. I would not be surprised if Chicago were not one of those places. Thus, any negative impressions on my part should be attributed to the rather unique circumstances in which I happen to be situated.

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