December 11, 2012

Here are recommended recordings provided by Mr. Gil French, Concert Editor for American Record Guide, for the upcoming The Four Seasons (Phils 6) on December 13 & 15.  Enjoy!

Puccini: Capriccio Sinfonico
Riccardo Chailly, Berlin Radio Symphony

It’s murder finding a good recording of this work. Riccardo Muti’s with the La Scala Philharmonic (which I’ve never heard) is available online, but Sony no longer issues it.  Claudio Scimone’s old recording has been reissued on the budget-priced Apex label, but the Monte Carlo Opera Orchestra was an inferior ensemble back then.

Decca’s album is called “Puccini: Orchestral Music”.  It was originally on London 410007 and was reissued in “The Originals” series, but seems to have disappeared. Online it is available only through  The album opens with a wonderfully transparent account of the “Preludio Sinfonico”; orchestra colors change as the harmonic textures change, balances between strings and winds are exquisite, the flow is seamlessly operatic, and the orchestra itself is absolutely gorgeous.  Too bad the “Capriccio Sinfonico” that follows isn’t on that same level, but it’s good enough, especially when encased by excellent performances of “Chrysanthemums”, the Intermezzo from “Manon Lescaut”, two orchestral selections from each of Puccini’s early operas “Le Villi” and “Edgar”, and three Minuets originally for string quartet.

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons
Nils-Erik Sparf; Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble
BIS 275

What curves old warhorses can throw! I hadn’t heard a recording of this work for years but always hesitate to rely on old memories of “favorite recordings”. Good thing!

In Baroque works, one normally expects modern “romantic era” orchestras to take more liberties with the score, and early-instrument or “period” ensembles to flaunt their “authenticity” and stick strictly to the score. But with “The Four Seasons” it’s mostly the opposite. Most modern-orchestra performances I listened to were rhythmically square with little spring to their step, and the soloists quite unimaginative, whereas most period performances had exaggerated tempo changes and heaved quickly from quadruple pianissimos to triple fortes; they sounded forced and cute, or, shall I say, “original” in a bizarre way.

The exception is Nils-Erik Sparf. He interprets each movement—in fact, each season—with a unified concept that picked me up at the beginning and didn’t let go until the end. Rhythms are upbeat and brightly articulated, though the sound of his baroque violin is warm and mellow. The same goes for this small orchestra of five violins, two violas, one cello, and one violone (early version of the string bass). Making the sound even warmer is the use of an organ for most of the continuo work, giving velvet support and a firm bass.  Tuning is exquisite—no harsh sourness at all.  Textures are so balanced that one can hear the inner lines’ counter-melodies and harmonic progressions as they play off against the soloist.  Sparf makes virtuosity sound easy, but it is in the slow movements that I found his musicality most striking—how he sustains interest when the torrid air barely moves in “Summer”, and how he works with the teasing, almost baritone harpsichord continuo in “Autumn” before it meets up with that merry harvest-dance finale.

There are two versions of BIS 275 available (at least on The original version contains only “The Four Seasons” and is only 40 minutes long. A later version adds a few other concertos but costs twice as much.  Alas, sometimes the best things come in small packages.



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