Cello concertos by Vivaldi
Recent experiments with playing Vivaldi concertos on the violoncello di spalla, a special form of cello common in Italy (and in particular in Bologna) in the late seventeenth century but which quickly gave way to the orthodox cello in the first few decades of the eighteenth century, have raised the intriguing possibility that Vivaldi himself, and perhaps some of his pupils at the Pied knew and cultivated this variant The peculiarity of the da spalla instrument is that it is held almost horizontally against the body: it is played and fingered like an outsize viola. This property made it an easier instrument to master for a violinist, and we know that Giuseppe Torelli, already an expert player of the violin and viola, was an exponent of it. A price is paid, of course for this convenience, for its tone, on account of its necessarily smaller size than the orthodox instrument, is reedier and lacks ‘body’. For the moment, judgement should be reserved over whether Vivaldi mastered this instrument, and, even more, over whether any of his concertos originally called for it. Certainly, the later concertos can be excluded immediately.
The cello concerto in C minor RV 401 is unusual in several respects. It is written by the composer on a paper, occurring nowhere else in Vivaldi’s oeuvre, of Italian but non-Venetian provenance, in which the ten staves on each page have been ruled in two actions (as 5 + 5) rather than in a single action, as favoured in Venetian music paper. This suggests that it is a product of one of the composer’s sojourns outside Venice, for example in Rome. Uniquely, the second violins are directed to remain in unison with the violas throughout and, like them, have to read from the alto clef.
The first violins remain independent but— amazingly— read from the soprano clef. The fact that the upper strings are in two, rather than the normal three, parts would fit a Roman context well (Roman orchestral music of the time often dispenses with a viola part), but the soprano clef remains a puzzling feature that no scholar has yet elucidated. The low tessitura of its accompaniment lends this concerto a markedly sombre, even austere, aura, which gritty dissonances and tense musical intervals (including, notably, Vivaldi’s beloved augmented second), as well as the retention of C minor for the middle movement, only amplify. The tutti sections contain much imitative counterpoint, and one could well believe that this is a work intended for performance in church, perhaps during Lent. The first movement is unusually slow (Vivaldi marks it ‘Allegro non molto’), and it is significant that it shares the opening of its main theme with the slow movement, marked ‘Larghetto’, of an otherwise unrelated violin concerto, RV 182. The musical style and notational conventions of this concerto point to a date somewhere in the 1720s.
RV 411, in F major, is a sunny, fluent work also from the 1720s, which, like so many of Vivaldi’s instrumental works from this period, bears strong traces of the lyrical style cultivated in his operas and cantatas. Expertly structured though this concerto is, its thematic content can be read as a potpourri of favourite musical motifs taken from the operatic stockpot. Vivaldi began the concerto expecting, it would seem, to use a ‘treble’ instrument such as the violin as the soloist (this one deduces from the original disposition of the clefs for the opening system) but changed his mind almost immediately. This indecision could indicate that the concerto was one of those written for the Pied, where he could select soloists almost at will. The orchestra is omitted from the D minor slow movement, which adopts the texture, and also the mood, of its equivalent in a cello sonata. Such ‘chamber-style’ slow movements are particularly common in concertos from the middle of Vivaldi’s career: it may, indeed, have been he who set a fashion for other composers to follow (among them, Bach, in the Second and Fifth Brandenburg Concertos). Despite their simplicity on paper, movements such as this can be extraordinarily expressive, a quality due in no small part to Vivaldi’s ability to create interesting patterns of phrase structure and to accelerate or decelerate the rhythmic motion in a dramatically meaningful way. Amid the general tunefulness, Vivaldi also seizes pportunities for brief displays of contrapuntal finesse, such as the canonic game of ‘tag’ with which the ritornello of the finale opens. There is an interesting structural detail in the first movement, which is that the last solo episode leads off with the same independent, memorable musical idea as the first. It seems to have been Vivaldi who popularized this attractive and logical means of thematic ’rounding’ in the solo part, which quickly became absorbed into the mainstream concerto tradition.
RV 422, in A minor, survives in no fewer than three sources: the autograph manuscript in Turin: a score in Dresden written out by the flautist Johann Joachim Quanti in the middle or late 1720s: and a manuscript in Wiesentheid belonging to the large repertory of music for cello collected by Count Rudolf Erwein von SchoenbornWiesentheid, an enthusiastic German amateur of the instrument. The manuscript from which Quanta made his copy was probably one of the many taken back to the Saxon capital from Venice in 1717 by the violinist Johann Georg Pisendel, whom the young Quanta later served as an assistant The style of the concerto suggests a date of composition around the middle of the 1710s.
The opening allegro of this concerto features some fascinating imitative interplay between the two violin parts, and in the last episode the first violin even engages in a simple imitative dialogue with the solo instrument. The solo part itself is perhaps a little simpler and rhythmically more uniform than most. Could Vivaldi have intended it for an amateur performer such as Schoenborn? The slow movement, which remains in A minor, is a little unusual in that, despite its adoption of ‘chamber-style’ scoring, it employs a standard kind of ritornello form found in Vivaldi’s slow movements, in which the ritornello is so short and motivically so uniform as to be hardly distinguishable from a simple musical link. The driving finale in 9/8 metre is in a kind of gigue rhythm, but this description does not tell the full story, for scattered among the groups of three notes we find also occasional ones of four or two notes. Vivaldi was in fact a pioneer in the use of “four against three” rhythmic patterns as we encounter them, famously, in the finale of the Mozart Oboe Quartet K. 370.
RV 399 is noteworthy on two counts. The first is that, of all Vivaldi’s cello concertos, it is the one that contains the clearest allusions to folk music. The closing phrase of the last solo of the first movement and the opening phrase of the ritornello of the finale (with its ‘Slavic’ anapaests) are both unmistakably popular in thematic derivation as well as in simplicity of harmonization and accompaniment. The second important feature, which may be connected in some way to the first, is that it is one of the relatively few compositions of its composer to be inscribed, after the title, with a personal name — presumably that of the person to whom copied parts were to be sent. The name has subsequently been struck out, but that does not mean that it is invalid: it may simply be that Vivaldi, sending the concerto later to a fresh destination, did not wish the original recipient to be recorded. The deletion has left only the opening letter, an ‘S’, and the final letters, ‘lich’, clearly visible, with room for about two or three letters in between. A preceding title, ‘Monsieur’, has been left as it stands. The choice of title is important, since it establishes that the person concerned was a northern European (but not necessarily a Frenchman, for Italians used the same title for everyone north of the Alps). One possible candidate is the leading Roman cellist Pietro Sterlich, but although his surname may well be Germanic in origin, he was known locally as ‘Signor’. Another possibility is Mathias Nikolaus Stulick, leader of the court orchestra at Mainz between 1723 and 1729. This is admittedly very conjectural — but a link to Mainz would at least make good biographical sense, since the Prince-Archbishop of the city at the time was Lothar Franz von Schoenborn-Wiesentheid, the uncle of the cello-playing count. Interestingly, bibliographical analysis places RV 399 in a set, partly numbered, of cello concertos written around 1730, to which RV 403, included on the present disc, also belongs.
In its concise expression this unpretentious concerto provides formal models of textbook clarity: the outer movements are in a ritornello form with four tutti sections interleaved with three solo sections; the slow movement, for cello and continuo alone, is a near-symmetrical binary structure. Most impressive of the works on this disc is the mature concerto in E flat RV 408. The key of E flat, greatly liked by Vivaldi, lends itself to the expression of solemn grandeur, a property abetted by the fact that the open string G is the third of the tonic triad. Like RV 411, this concerto has succumbed to the benign influence of the vocal style. It exemplifies to a high degree Vivaldi habit of combining the ultra-simple with the highly sophisticated. The musical materials themselves — the bricks, as it were, of the edifice — are mostly elemental to the point of naiveté. But the manifold ways in which they are juxtaposed, superposed, formed into chains, recombined and distributed among the parts are anything but elementary. It is instructive merely to study the two violin parts and see how they by turns unite in unison, proceed in mellifluous thirds, interweave and imitate one another. Students of Vivaldi’s music are likely to recognize the opening notes of the slow movement, in C minor, as the same (after transposition) as those of the first movement of the violin sonata in D minor RV 12. In scoring (for solo instrument and bass) and in form (binary form with a reprise of the opening theme midway through the second section) and in some of the subsidiary material the two movements also run in parallel. The concerto movement is perhaps the more heartfelt: indeed, it is the jewel of the sonata-style movements in the cello concertos.
RV 417 is in G minor and conforms to tradition for this key by being fiery, almost truculent, in expression. The two outer movements both display a device that became very common in Vivaldi later concertos and was inherited by the mainstream tradition after him. This device consists of ’embedding’ a lengthy solo in the final ritornello in the tonic key so that, effectively, the single tutti statement becomes two statements. That this procedure should be followed in both outer movements illustrates the mature Vivaldi’s preoccupation, conscious or unconscious, with what we today term musical unity. It is the same impulse that causes him, uniquely among his contemporaries, to favour the retention of the tonic key throughout the movements of a concerto or sonata. In the present instance, however, the central movement (once again, with chamber-style scoring) is in B flat major, the relative major key, which is the ‘default’ option for most composers (when writing sonata and concerto internal slow movements J. S. Bach never once deviates from it). The change of key is here wise, since the intensity of the minor-key outer movements needs a little respite.
RV 403, in D major, belongs to the set compiled around 1730, and like RV 414 (included on the first disc in the present series) was written out by an inexperienced copyist working under Vivaldi’s supervision — almost certainly a member of his domestic atelier, since the ink colour of the composer’s additions and corrections is identical with that of the main text. It has been credibly mooted by the Vivaldi scholar Paul Everett that this copyist was one of Vivaldi’s nephews, Pietro and Daniele Mauro, who both later became professional music copyists. A strange feature of the manuscript is that it uses the ‘full’ form of time signature, 3/8, rather than the simplified ‘large 3’ form that Vivaldi came to adopt in the early 1720s, even though all other elements — bibliographical, notational and stylistic support the later date. Perhaps this apparent reversion was merely an act of independence on the part of the copyist: the Lombardic (reverse-dotted) rhythms in the solo part, which became a feature of Vivaldi’s music only after he moved to the ‘large 3’ form, rule out any possibility that this was a significantly older work newly copied for inclusion in the set. The concerto’s first movement, with its jerky dotted rhythms and energetic sweeps (tirate), conforms to what Vivaldi’s Italian contemporaries knew as the ‘French’ style and associated with the world of pomp and ceremonial. Interestingly, the solo part displays these features only during one brief moment, as if Vivaldi wished to set up an opposition between ‘French’ tutti sections and ‘Italian’ solo sections. In the first two movements (the slow movement is also in D major) and most of the finale, the music remains resolutely diatonic and in the grip of the major mode, but in the final solo of the work chromatic and pathetic inflections at last come to the fore: Vivaldi knows that, as in any good narrative, the final triumph needs to be preceded by the stiffest challenge.