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CD of the Week — Vivaldi’s Chamber Sonatas

Vivaldi: Chamber Sonatas, Opus 1
Naïve

Just when you think you’ve heard enough Vivaldi in elevators and waiting rooms to last three lifetimes, along comes an independent French label with a release to blow cobwebs from fixed minds and knitted socks off a Venetian nun. These sonatas are the first published work of the red-haired priestly teacher of orphan girls, composed for two violins, cello and harpsichord (known as clavicembalo).

Intended for girls of average ability, they are simple in texture and execution, turning tricky and exciting only if the prescribed tempi are observed. They must have sounded horrible in a hot classroom but, played with the skill and precision of L’Estravagante, a dazzling Baroque quartet, and with immaculate studio engineering by Fabio Framba, here they sound nothing less than exhilarating.

The melodies are neither durable nor convincingly original. Vivaldi, like everyone else in his time, took his themes from street ballads and his more famous colleagues. There are notable similarities with Corelli in the way he shapes an adagio, for instance. Still, for a debut work, the set is richly varied and sufficiently intriguiing to make you want to hear more – which is not something I have felt about Vivaldi since my first Four Seasons LP wore out the bottom of its groove.

3 Concerto CDs

Elgar, Gal: Cello Concertos
Avie

The first Brazilian soloist to attempt the Elgar, Antonio Menses takes a languid stroll through unaffected nostalgia. There is more beauty here than pain and the playing of the Northern Sinfonia under Claudio Cruz evokes many an image of lost landscapes. One misses, perhaps, the edge of all those First World War losses. It companion piece, the little-known Hans Gal concerto, has a bright opening but not much to follow.

Nielsen, Tchaikovsky: Violin Concertos
EMI

The prodigious Norwegian Vilde Frang lights up the underplayed Nielsen like a burst of Aurora borealis. The Danish national orchestra with Elvind Gullberg Jensen add all the right colours to the backdrop; it is hard to recall hearing the work more aptly performed. In the Tchaikovsky concerto, unfortunately, they have little to add.

Strauss, Skalkottas, Aho: Oboe Concertos
MDG

Written for a US Occupation soldier in 1945, the Strauss oboe concerto is sickly-sweet and overly ingratiating, a kind of dessert to his morbid Metamorphosen. The Skalkottas work, written six years earlier by an orchestral violinist on a subsistence wage in Athens, is uncompromising and modern, yet gently seductive. Kalevi Aho’s piece is a duet for oboe and cello. The soloist is Yeon-Hee Kwak, former principal of Bavarian Radio, and the sound she yields is total serenity.

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