Terje Tønnesen, soloist and conductor on this recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, includes a liner note to the effect that the performance “represents a form of time travel in which we attempt a ‘correct’ reading of history while at the same time interpreting it freely from our own perspective.” For those who routinely deal with the past and its artifacts — from archaeologists and historians to musicians, actors, and critics — this seems so self-evident that it hardly bears repeating, but it does give one pause for thought: we tend to assume that the past is just like the present, except that people wore funny clothes. And so we admire Scythian belt-buckles, Egyptian necropolises, and Pre-Columbian stone carvings without ever thinking about the fact that the people who made those things did not think of art as a separate phenomenon, to be hung on walls or put on pedestals under glass domes in a new kind of temple. In the performing arts, this idea sometimes leads to unusual, even bizarre attempts to make older works “relevant.” (Although I confess I can very easily deal with a filmed stage version of Hamlet done in practice clothes, or even a production of Der Ring des Nibelungs done in Victorian evening dress in front of a hydroelectric dam.)
That said, I must somehow deal with Tønnesen’s interpretation of Vivaldi’s delightful war-horse. I also feel it incumbent to warn you, Gentle Reader, that I have been immersed in critical theory recently — not that I expect it to affect my vocabulary, necessarily, but my mindset is strongly oriented toward metaconversations and cognitive engagement right now, so that the work under discussion is as likely to be the actual context of the recording as it is to be Vivaldi’s music.
Vivaldi’s concerto is, quite baldly, programmatic: there is a narrative component that is essential to comprehending the music; whether it’s essential to enjoying the music is another question, but I would rather comprehend something I enjoy than not. In this case, the program is the seasons themselves. (For my comments on Vivaldi’s use of the seasons, see my review of the recording by Giuliano Carmignola and the Venice Baroque Orchestra.)
This is a live recording, which, if we go back to earlier controversies, is either the best possible kind of recording, or not terribly desirable. In this rendering, however, freshness and spontaneity versus technical perfection and definitive readings are not so much the issue as is context: the recording opens with concert hall noises, and breaks between movements follow this pattern — in fact, the “Autumn” movement opens with a unison exclamation from the orchestra (one assumes), although we could have been spared the further outbreaks in the Allegro. Call it an equivalent to evening dress and a power station, with perhaps a nod to John Cage and the ambient school. The listener may find it a distraction, or (if you’re up on your metaconversations) an interesting attempt at bridging history.
The performance itself is rather darker than one would expect, given the sunny, Mediterranean nature of Vivaldi’s music. This approach does, however, lead to a really riveting summer storm in the second movement and, while the lively passages are, indeed, as lively as one might wish, there is what I can only call a deeper foundation: the violin floats over a heavier bass line, which, among other things, creates a very interesting layered effect, especially apparent in the opening of “Winter,” which is superbly done. The overall sound is perfectly in keeping with the reading: played on modern instruments, the sound is somewhat astringent, but this seems only to contribute to the clarity, not to mention the contrast in those sections where T&3248;nnesen calls forth an amazing sweetness from the violin. (The inclusion of the nyckelharpe and bagpipes is perfectly transparent.)
Quite honestly, on first listening, I was prepared to hate this recording, but, thanks to Wittgenstein and Foucault, I really can’t fault any of Tønnesen’s choices — except the vocalizations in “Autumn,” which are fairly jarring, context or no context. If you’re not inclined to discourse in the wider sense, or prefer not to worry about history when listening to music, it’s very easy to tune out those portions. The reading itself is unique and perfectly legitimate, as well as being more than a little engaging, so, quite in spite of myself, I wound up enjoying it immensely.