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CD of the Week – Vivaldi’s Four Seasons Recomposed

By (October 31, 2012) No Comment

Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

The difference between me and you, if I may make so bold, is that I listen to music analytically and for a living while you do so in expectancy of pleasure. This may help illuminate a further distinction and – why I recoil in weary resignation at the arrival of another performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons while you greet it with the warmth appropriate to an old friend. I can find no obvious reason why one Venetian pot-pourri has earned global popularity over all others while you will simply exclaim, ‘but it’s lovely!’

And you’re quite right: it is. It does what it says in the title, conveying the fluctuant colors and temperatures of the different times of year. Other composers celebrated the seasons but none captured their essence so directly and succinctly as the red-haired teacher of convent girls who wrote new concertos for his class practically every week. Vivaldi, I suspect, would be as mystified as I am by the immortality he gained through this particular set two centuries after it was written. The appeal of Four Seasons did not dawn on audiences until the late 1950s. Today, it is obligatory tourist fare in church and street concerts across Europe. Why? Ours not to reason. Does it have any contemporary relevance or context?

The latter question lies at he heart of a London composer’s post-minimalist attempt to connect the score to creative improvisation and electronic manipulation without destroying its instrumental innocence. A handpicked Berlin chamber orchestra with Daniel Hope as soloist performs his bidding with razzle-dazzle energy and no little inspiration and, for extended periods, I am almost persuaded that Viv’s tetralogy might be worth another listen in the raw.

The exercise is fun and worthwhile and the record will make a perfect chill-out after a heavy night on the dance floor. It is a tribute album in the best sense of the term and no Vivaldi purist could fault its respect for text. Would I want to hear it again?

Ask me in a month or two.

Catching up with Mahler

Symphonies 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9

Kirill Kondrashin was one of few maestros bold enough to perform Mahler in the Soviet Union, and even he could not get the God-seeking 2nd and 8th past the censors. The sound, when these Moscow and Leningrad tapes trickled out in the 1970s was rough as a sputnik landing, but the interpretations made you really sit up and listen. Kondrashin was a Hitchcockian master of high tension and suggestive inflection. Try the third movement of the first symphony and you will find a great Mahlerian at work. The sound, in this reissued set, has been modestly improved.

Das Klagende Lied

The conductor here is another Russian, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, and the 1981 BBC Proms soloists include Janet Baker and Robert Tear. The reading is on the languid side and the BBC chorus make porridge of German texts. No matter: a sense of rare occasion overwhelms any nit-picking cavils. And there’s a Janacek curio to conclude. Ever heard The Fiddler’s Child before? Me, neither.

6th symphony

Simone Young is halfway through her Hamburg Philharmonic cycle and a style has emerged. The risks are well managed and the conversation is civilised throughout. Her approach worked well in the early symphonies, but the sixth lacks an integral ferocity. Mahler is out to terrify his audience; this is too polite, by half.

Norman Lebrecht is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other publications. He has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc.

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