Antonio Lucio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was a virtuoso violinist, a fact borne out by his prolific output for the instrument: of nearly 640 instrumental works, 253 are violin concertos. He pioneered a plethora of colouristic effects for the violin, including pizzicato and muting, and did much to develop the solo concerto, influencing Tartini and Leclair, and aiding the evolution of ritornello form — in which the tuttimaterial recurs, usually four to five times, interspersed with passages in which the soloist can display. For this collection Viktoria Mullova and Giovanni Antonini have drawn together some of the composer’s finest and most demanding concertos for the instrument.
J. S. Bach was so impressed by Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins in B minor, Op. 3 No.10 (RV 580), that he transcribed it to produce the Concerto for Four Harpsichords in A minor, BWV 1065. The twelve Op. 3 concertos L’estro armonico (‘Harmonious Inspiration’), published in 1711, represented a turning point in Vivaldi’s style. The works introduce a more individualistic approach, a greater distinction between solo and accompaniment. In Marc Pincherle’s words: ‘He glorified a personal feeling, a new lyricism, the vogue for which was as widespread as it was sudden’. This concerto demonstrates Vivaldi’s innovation in exploring the violin’s colouristic potential, articulating a range of techniques. The commanding opening movement is followed by a Largo, which features stately, rather French material pervaded by dotted rhythms, preceding an effervescent finale.
The title of Vivaldi’s Concerto in D major, ‘ll Grosso Mogul’, RV 208, alludes to the Indian court of the Grand Mughal, Akbar, whose reign saw the Mughal Empire grow considerably. Both the fiery opening movement and the jovial finale demand great dexterity from the soloist, in particular during the scintillating and exceptional cadenzas. The central movement is an elaborate, mysterious recitative for the violin, the ending of which is surprisingly ambiguous for a work of the era; the final Allegro consequently becomes a real necessity in order to provide resolution.
‘ll Grosso Mogul’ also inspired Bach’s Organ Concerto in C, BWV 594, a modified transcription of the work. According to musicologist Johann Nikolaus Forkel (1749-1818): ‘Vivaldi’s violin concertos, just then being published, gave [Bach] the guidance he needed. He so often heard them cited as outstanding compositions that he thereby hit upon the happy idea of transcribing them as a group for the keyboard. Hence he studied the progression of the ideas and their relations, variety in modulating and many other things’.
The C major Concerto, RV 187, opens with a sunny Allegro of Handelian charm. The movement’s harmonic progressions are charted by arpeggiac sequences in the violin, whose graceful virtuosity is written as though to sound effortless. The stalking rhythm with which the ensemble begins the slow movement gives way to a melancholic violin line; Vivaldi imparts the soloist’s material with the quality of one unfolding a tale of woe. In the finale Vivaldi reconciles the conflicting aspects of the preceding movements, fusing the darker moments of the slow movement with the joie de vivre of the first. Energetic rhythms in the ensemble underpin the mercurial solo role, which displays an array of techniques, including double-stopping, sustained notes that demand accurate intonation, and dexterous flourishes.
`L’Inquietudine’ CRestlessness’) is the apt title attached to the D major Concerto, RV 234. This work of terse brevity opens with a palpitating string texture; boisterous tuttis are interspersed with the relatively smooth lines of the solo part, and the movement ends as abruptly as it begins. The Largo features scalic figures passed across the ensemble, the soloist continuing to represent a calming influence, its relatively settled lines pouring balm on the ensemble’s freneticism. In the final Allegro the soloist seems to succumb to the prevailing mood of unrest, yet with the phenomenal agility required comes necessary control. This maintains the sense that the violin, despite displaying dazzling technique, is reining in the ensemble’s volatile nature.
The Concerto in E minor RV 277, `Il Favorito’, was one of a set of six presented by Vivaldi to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. The concertos were later published by Le Cene as Vivaldi’s Op.11, of which Favorito’ is the second. The title is only broadly relevant, in that it was appended to the score after the work was written, but is nevertheless suggestive of the brilliance of the violin part. The imposing grandeur of the opening movement shows Vivaldi’s capacity for musical drama, while the Andante exudes an almost wistful lyricism. The dotted rhythms of the final movement seem to foreshadow the final Allegro from the ‘Autumn’ Concerto of The Four Seasons.
Viktoria Mullova plays her ‘Jules Falk’ Stradivarius violin for this recording, but uses gut strings tuned A=415 with a Baroque bow to achieve a closeness to the music’s period and style. Mullova finds the transition from metal to gut strings is second nature now; much more significant is her use of the Baroque bow, which, she says, alters the quality of sound produced more dramatically than anything else.
Mullova does not generally consult historical sources as a means of justifying her interpretation as ‘authentic’, but is as faithful as possible to the score in matters of ornamentation and phrasing. Though Mullova intends to research ornamentation in the future, it is worth emphasising that all of the Baroque era’s abundant performance styles could be drawn upon to support any given modern interpretation of this repertoire. Approaches to violin-playing differed widely from place to place, as recorded by Georg Muffat (1653-1704) in his writings on violin technique, but he allowed that ‘the best masters of all nations agree that inasmuch as a bow stroke is long, firm and sweet, so much is it to be valued’.
The titles attached to these concerti are useful as labels but, as far as Viktoria Mullova is concerned, they are not crucial to the interpretation of the music. The real challenge in getting to the heart of these pieces is, she maintains, the need for the ensemble to ‘breathe together’ through the musical phrases. This process can take several days of rehearsal, by the end of which the ensemble is truly unified in expression. Although these musicians have played this repertoire together many times throughout the world, they are constantly striving for fresh insights into the works and for musical spontaneity. In Mullova’s words, conductor Giovanni Antonini ‘never stops searching’.