If we were to apply modern terminology to the Vivaldi works recorded here, we would have to refer to them as “sonatas”, instead of the description “concerto” chosen by the composer. This heading would then be followed by the instruments for which the work is scored. For in Germany in particular, the term “concerto” was used by 1750 at the latest for a composition in which one or more solo instruments engage in a musical dialogue with the orchestra. But this was not the case with Vivaldi’s “concerti”. On the one hand, the Venetian composer still adhered to what Johann Mattheson wrote in his Das neueroeffnete Orchestre of 1713: “Concerti … are (musical) gatherings and Collegia musica; stricté, though, this word is used for both vocal and instrumental chamber music; and strictissimé, for violin pieces, arranged in such a manner that each part comes to the fore at a certain time, and vies with the other instruments, as it were”. But on the other hand, Vivaldi also gives the term a new meaning with his own concertante compositions. He uses the description “concerto” for every conceivable combination of instruments: for recorder, oboe, violin, bassoon and continuo – or, as in the D minor Concerto RV 540 – for viola d’amore, lute, two violins, viola and continuo, as long as the parts are scored for a solo instrument in each case. (RV 540 also exists in another version, scored for viola d’amore, lute and string orchestra.) The Vivaldi concerto is cyclical in layout, with three movements as a rule. The outer movements always have the same basic structure, namely the alternation between solo and tutti or ritornello sections.
All these features are to be found in the concerti on this disc. They are really “chamber concerti without orchestra”. This group – compositions for between three and six instruments plus continuo – is represented by a total of 22 works in Vivaldi’s oeuvre. In the concerti recorded here, a “mixed scoring” predominates: in other words, the woodwind instruments oboe, recorder and bassoon are joined by one or two strings – violins as a rule – and of course the continuo. All the concerti have three movements, with the exception of the C major work RV 87, where two stately adagio bars are placed before the Allegro as a kind of recollection of the solemn four-movement “sonata da chiesa” of the Corelli tradition.
The appointment of an oboe teacher, one Lodovico Erdmann, at the Conservatorio dell’Ospedale della Pietà in 1706 was followed by the gradual introduction of other instruments: the clarinet came in 1716, the transverse flute in 1728 and the horn in 1747. One is struck by the relative unpopularity of brass instruments – perhaps they were felt to be unseemly for girls to play. For the music school of the Ospedale only taught girls – orphans, illegitimate or abandoned children, or children whose parents were unable to look after them. Antonio Vivaldi joined the teaching staff of the Ospedale della Pietà in 1704: the composer, who had taken sacred orders the year before, is entered in the institution’s salary lists as “Maestro di Violino di Choro”. We know from a variety of sources that he also acted as “Maestro de’ Concerti”. One of Vivaldi’s duties at the Ospedale was the purchase of new instruments, and it goes without saying that he paid attention to quality. For he either led the orchestra as first violin or conducted it, both in public and in internal concerts, as well as contributing his own compositions to the programme. In other words, the keen experimenter Vivaldi had his “musical laboratory” on his own doorstep, as it were. After 1717, it is true, he was more loosely connected to the Ospedale than hitherto, and his various travels took him away from Venice for prolonged periods: but he remained Maestro there till his death in 1741.
The twelve Suonate da camera a tre op. 1 were printed in Venice in 1705, and are Vivaldi’s earliest surviving works. In accordance with the rules of the trade, Vivaldi presented his “journeyman’s piece” here, declaring his indebtedness to Arcangelo Corelli, whose works he may have come to know through Corelli’s pupil Albinoni, and to the tradition of his predecessors. For Vivaldi was well aware that the layout and design of the movements of his trio sonatas were taken from the chamber music practice customary at the time, even if he does break impetuously with convention now and again. As Corelli had done in his “12 Sonate a Violino e Violone o Cimbalo” of 1700 (his op. 5), Vivaldi likewise brings his op. 1 cycle to a close with a set of variations on the well-known theme La follia, which was much in vogue at the time. Here he had the chance to give his artist’s imagination free rein and to prove that he had a perfect command of the rules of composition. Unlike La follia RV 63, the last of Vivaldi’s op. 1 set, the dates of the five concerti which have survived in manuscript form are not known. And precise dating is made extremely hard by the fact that the composer’s personal style was already fully developed at a very early stage — certainly by the time the op. 2 violin sonatas made their appearance in 1709. Detailed research has yet to be undertaken. But these chamber concerti possess the same features that characterize all the composer’s concerti. Thus we find here as elsewhere expansive melodies with large interval jumps and chromatic idioms taken from folk music; we find the rhythmically concise openings where Vivaldi is fond of following two notes in the stressed part of the bar with a single note in the unstressed part; and we encounter the remarkably progressive harmonics, which are achieved by means of a level of dramatic tension that was unusual before Vivaldi. Vivaldi was frequently accused by contemporaries of placing too much emphasis on the melody and neglecting harmony, the “working through” of the parts. But is it really a disadvantage to satisfy the emotions more than the intellect?
Translation: Clive Williams