Vivaldi op. X
“… towards the end, Vivaldi played an admirable accompagnement solo, to which he then added a fantasy that gave me a fair shock, it being impossible that anything of this kind has been played thus before now …”
– thus the account of one music-loving Herr von Uffenbach that he jotted down in his diary of his travels after an evening at the opera in Venice on 4th February 1715. At this time, the Italian composer and violin virtuoso Antonio Vivaldi was already starting to become famous in Europe. His concerti in particular for one, two or more soloists – Vivaldi wrote a total of over 500 – established his reputation as an innovative composer of considerable imagination. Vivaldi introduced new elements to the concerto genre inaugurated by Corelli and other Italian corn-posers, and he was also responsible for inventing such new playing techniques and combinations of sounds as were so admired by Herrn von Uffenbach.
The six Flute concertos op. 10, which were published in Amsterdam ca. 1728/29, are a particularly fine example of Vivaldi’s talent for innovation. There was hardly any instrument extant in Vivaldi’s day for which he did not write a concerto. Since the beginning of the 18th century, the timbres of the individual instruments had become a source of increasing interest for composers; the specific potential of different instruments was tested, new sounds were discovered. Circa 1710, the “traversa” or “flauto traverso”, the forerunner of the transverse flute, started to displace the recorder (“flauto”), which had dominated thitherto. The “traversa” went on to become one of the most fashionable instruments by the mid-18th century. Vivaldi’s concertos anticipate this development, with the total of 18 that he wrote for the flute family including three concertos for “flautino” or “sopranino” recorder, which was tuned an octave higher than the alto instrument. The Vivaldi expert Karl Heller believes that the composer was motivated to write the six concertos of the op. 10 set by his publisher Roger: “According to modern research, only one of the six works (the G major No. 4) was actually composed as a flute concerto. The other five are the result of arranging works originally scored for different ensembles: the F major concerto No. 5 was originally a recorder concerto, the remaining four works are arrangements of concerti da camera for several solo instruments without orchestra”. This is a procedure with which we are familiar from Johann Sebastian Bach, who made arrangements of his own concertos along these lines, as well as of concertos by other composers – Vivaldi himself among them!
It doubtless seemed an attractive proposition to Vivaldi to present the various possibilities offered by a single family of instruments using concerto form as a vehicle. But it was a complicated process, transferring a string part originally written for a solo instrument to a woodwind soloist with orchestral accompaniment, and this can be seen here and there in the concertos. The first violin, for instance, sometimes steps forth from the tutti strings group and joins in the solo flute part, as in the last movement of the concerto La Notte, where the flute and the solo violin engage in virtuoso dialogue with each other. In fact, this concerto is something of an odd-manout in the op. 10 set. Here Vivaldi leaves the three-movement concerto form (fast – slow – fast) that he had developed to such a perfection in the other five works and adds programmatic titles: the second Presto bears the subtitle Fantasmi (Dreams), while the last Largo is called II Sonno (Sleep). In both cases, Vivaldi shows himself to be skilled and imaginative at depicting the psyche in music: he paints exciting dream visions and gives the peace and relaxation of sleep plastic form. Moreover, La Notte is the only work of the set in a minor key: in the fast outer movements, at any rate, the other five concertos are all in major keys.
An 18th century compser could expect a work to enjoy especial popularity if he gave it a name indicating some kind of programmatic content: this is evident from his op. 8 concertos, published in 1725, of which nos. 1-4 are known to music-lovers everywhere as the Four Seasons, and likewise from the first three works of op. 10. Like many of his contemporaries, Vivaldi was fond of such natural phenomena as the changing seasons or a storm at sea (La Tempesta di Mare, RV 253) for this purpose, and he also made use of the delightful variety of birdcalls, e.g. the cuckoo in RV 335 and the goldfinch ll Gardellino that is personified on our recording with the “flauto sopranino”.
In his autobiography, Johann Joachim Quantz, himself a flautist of considerable skill, referred to the Vivaldi concertos as “an entirely new kind of musical work”, and praised their “splendid ritornelli” in particular, saying that they had provided him with “a good model” for his own compositions thereafter. And it’s certainly true that Vivaldi’s exceptional creativity and his boundless imagination gave the concerto genre and its quality of expression an unprecedented sophistication. The fast movements are based on the alternation of orchestral sections (ritornello or tutti) and solo passages.
The ritornello consists of a number of melodically and rhythmically concise segments, which recur unchanged in the course of the movement, but are modified with considerable imagination as regards selection and the order in which they are played. The solos on the other hand, which provide the link between one ritornello and the next, are devoted entirely to the display of instrumental virtuosity. The soloist had the opportunity here to show off his skills in one new figuration after another, often building up to a climax. The slower middle movement, which is mostly marked Largo or Cantabile, is given over to the expressive solo cantilena. Here the melodic line is richly embellished, particularly in the repeats: a technique that was taken for granted in 18th century performing practice, and without which Vivaldi’s works, and indeed the solo passages in the fast movements too, would forfeit an essential part of their character.
Translation: Clive Williams