Programme note to follow
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Concerto in D major RV 208 ‘Grosso Mogul’ (c. 1716)
Although Vivaldi’s 500 instrumental concertos include some 37 for bassoon, four for the mandolin and at least one for the ‘flautino’ or flageolet (a member of the flute family, similar to a recorder), nearly half of the total are for solo violin. The violin was Vivaldi’s own instrument but it was also the one taught to the largest number of girls at the Ospedale della Pietô in Venice, where he worked from 1703 to 1740. Most of these concertos were written expressly for his pupils, so the virtuosic nature of the music gives us some idea of the high standards these outstanding young musicians attained under his tuition. Writing after hearing one of the Ospedale’s concerts during a visit to Italy, French writer Charles de Brosses wrote: ‘The Ospedali have the best music here... Indeed they sing like angels, play the violin, flute, organ, oboe, cello, bassoon... The performances are entirely their own and each concert is composed of about forty girls... There is nothing so charming as to see a young and pretty nun in her white robe, with a sprig of pomegranate blossoms over her ear, leading the orchestra and bearing time with all the grace and precision imaginable.’
But de Brosses’ characterisation of these ‘charming’ performances may not be entirely accurate. It is more likely that Vivaldi’s performances were noisy affairs, with a house full of shouting, clapping and stamping listeners, who responded with applause to each virtuosic solo and every return of a well-known melody. It is for this reason that Vivaldi’s concertos are built upon tonal routines and repetitive forms: every build-up of harmonic tension brings with it a satisfying sense of release, and every divergence from the melodic patterning brings the possibility of startling the listener. In turn, each return of the principle theme reorients the listener and re-establishes a sense of comfort and stability. It is a formula, and one which works. Through his extensive development of the concerto form, Vivaldi was instrumental in establishing the three-movement plan (fast-slow-fast) as the recognised concerto model and making extensive use of the ritornello procedure (the return of a principle theme) during the outer movements. His emphasis upon close thematic unity and vibrant rhythms also came to be widely emulated.
The Concerto in D major RV 208 ‘Grosso Mogul’ was written during Vivaldi’s time at the Ospedale, but the origins of its title remain unclear and it is unlikely that Vivaldi gave it its name. It is a striking concerto in many respects, not least because Vivaldi composed his own cadenzas for the first and third movements, when it was far more common for performers to improvise these themselves. The concerto also includes a highly-unusual slow movement consisting of a series of recitative-like passages for the solo violin, which leaps and dances above sustained continuo chords. Here, Vivaldi commands his soloist to ‘speak’ instead of sing, in an innovative gesture that would have shocked and delighted his audiences as much as the dazzling outer movements.
© Jo Kirkbride
Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764)
Suite from Les Paladins (1760)
Though he lived to the ripe age of 81 and composed prolifically in his final years, Rameau’s operatic oeuvre is not is vast as it might have been – had he been brave enough to consider it earlier in his career. As he later admitted: ‘I have attended the theatre since I was 12, yet I first worked for the Opera only at 50, and even then I did not think myself capable.’ Rameau did not begin writing opera – the genre for which he is best-known today – until 1733, and spent most of his early career working as an organist and violinist, composing only occasionally and receiving relatively little recognition for his works. Little is known about this early period of his life, though it appears he held organist posts in Lyon, Clermont and Dijon. As a result, the few early works that survive are largely for church purposes – a handful of motets and cantatas, and a number of canons for mixed voices. A notable exception, his first book of works for harpsichord, Pièces de clavecin, was written as early as 1706 and marks Rameau out alongside François Couperin as one of the masters of harpsichord music in the early 18th century.
After a rather unremarkable early career, punctuated only by the publication of his compositional treatise, Traité de l'harmonie, in 1722, the response when Rameau finally premiered his first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, in October 1733, was dramatic. It was quickly hailed as the most important opera since the death of Rameau’s predecessor, Jean-Baptiste Lully, and was admired for its harmonic innovation and melodic originality. But its intensely dramatic style also alienated others, who found the music over-complex, unnatural and misshapen. This was the first of his operas to divide the public, in what would become a protracted battle between the ‘Lullistes’ (the traditionalists and Lully devotees) and the ‘Ramistes’ (Rameau’s supporters who favoured his contemporary style). Though the dispute gradually subsided during the 1740s and Rameau was eventually embraced as a court composer and given a royal pension, controversy was never far away and his works remained continually at risk of criticism for their relentless adventurousness.
To our ears today, these works appear firmly rooted in the French tradition, but for Rameau’s contemporaries they often broke with recognised musical customs. His comic opera, Les Paladins, though it includes elements of face and knockabout comedy, was criticised for mixing this with serious elements more befitting of a Tragédie. The libretto is based on a fable by La Fontaine and blends reality with the surreal as a young knight, Atis, struggles to free a young Italian girl, Argie, from captivity and win her hand. Several disguises later, and with the help of the fairy Manto, Atis is successful and manages to outwit her gaoler and claim his prize. Though Rameau was well into his seventies when he wrote it, Les Paladins contains some of his most adventurous orchestration and even incorporates new musical fashions, with a boldness of style and attention to detail more befitting of a composer in the throes of youth.
© Jo Kirkbride
Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)
The Four Seasons
Violin Concerto in E major, Op 8 No 1 ‘La primavera’ (Spring), RV269
Largo e pianissimo sempre
Danza pastorale: Allegro
Violin Concerto in G minor, Op 8 No 2 ‘L’estate’ (Summer), RV315
Allegro non molto
Adagio – Presto
Violin Concerto in F major, Op 8 No 3 ‘L’autunno’ (Autumn), RV293
Violin Concerto in F minor, Op 8 No 4 ‘L’inverno’ (Winter), RV297
Allegro non molto
In December 1725, the Gazette d’Amsterdam announced the publication of a collection of twelve concertos for solo violin and orchestra by Antonio Vivaldi. Four of the concertos, The Four Seasons, were clearly a few years old by then, since in his dedication of the set Vivaldi begs his patron Count Wenzel von Morzin, “not to be surprised if among these few and feeble concertos, your Illustrious Grace will find The Four Seasons, already long since under the indulgent and generous eye of Your Grace.” Vivaldi also wrote of his “great pride” in publishing them and the title he gave to the set as a whole – Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (The Contest between Harmony and Invention) – is a perfect description of The Four Seasons themselves.
The Four Seasons depict the passing of a year in the Veneto, and were originally prefaced with illustrative sonnets – possibly written by Vivaldi himself – which make explicit the programmatic implications of the works. The whole cycle is concerned with mankind’s relationship with nature, regarded as benign in Spring and Autumn and malign in Summer and Winter. Mythological allusions abound, most especially in Spring, which is personified in an Arcadian scene of nymphs and shepherds.
In the first concerto, Spring is proclaimed in birdsong, in the rustle of gentle breezes, and the first of the numerous storms which seem to afflict Vivaldi’s countryside so regularly. In the slow movement, the solo violin depicts a sleeping goatherd, while viola interjections illustrate the barking of his faithful dog. The finale, a brisk siciliano, evokes the pastoral revelries of nymphs and shepherds.
The sonnet prefacing the second concerto, Summer, speaks of torrid heat, brilliant sunshine and a furious storm, all of which Vivaldi vividly portrays. In the slow movement, the lull before the storm, the soloist represents the exhausted shepherd – his rest disturbed only by bothersome flies.
In Autumn, man is seen enjoying Nature’s bounty in untroubled leisure. Bucolic, Breughel-esque indulgence is hinted at both in the sonnet and the music, which calls for the most sustained displays of extrovert virtuosity from the soloist. In the slow movement, sleeping drunkards are depicted by muted strings and lazy harpsichord arpeggios. In the finale, subtitled La caccia, all the various aspects of hunting are on display – from the sallying forth of the hunters themselves, to the flight of the prey and bursts of gunfire.
The opening of Winter paints a wonderfully chilling picture of a frozen landscape. In the beautiful slow movement “we move”, as the sonnet tells us, “to the fire and contented peace, while the rain outside pours down in sheets”. The finale gives a detailed depiction of what it is like to walk and skate on ice. The act of skating here symbolising the liberating freedom achievable when mankind lives in harmony with nature.
© Stephen Strugnell
A baroque extravaganza of exotica and virtuosity starring Scotland’s favourite violinist. Benedetti is exploring the Vivaldi repertoire at the moment, and here she juxtaposes his most famous set of concerti with a scintillating rarity: Il Grosso Mogul. No-one knows where the nickname comes from (and we are pretty sure Vivaldi had no links to Delhi royalty), but its suggestion of oriental brilliance is picked up in the rest of this colourful programme with Rameau’s sensational dances from Les Paladins.