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Happily for Vivaldi lovers, the long-stalled Naïve Edition is now back on track, complete with those chic cover portraits mingling haute couture and postmodernist camp. A bundle of hyperactivity, the Red Priest famously proclaimed that he could write a concerto faster than it took his copyists to copy it. Some of the tiny concertos for string orchestra, most lasting under five minutes, seem to prove his point. Yet even when the basic invention – laconic repeated phrases, predictable chains of sequences – is formulaic, Vivaldi’s trademark incendiary energy carries the day. There is also more variety than you might suspect. Finales range from the scampering bourrée in the D major Concerto, RV126, to the exhilarating triple fugue in RV152. Slow movements are rarely straightforwardly songful. The chromatic haze in the haunting Largos of RV161 and RV142 evokes the mysterious melancholy of the Venetian lagoon. There are touches of exoticism, too, as in RV163, nicknamed Conca, where Vivaldi creates ‘wavemachine’ effects with a conchiglia marina, a large seashell with an added mouthpiece.
Propelled by the percussively inventive continuo, thrumming archlute and Baroque guitar to the fore, Dantone and his Italian band are on cracking form. Some may raise an eyebrow at the exaggerated dynamic contrasts, the frequent swellings and ebbings and the unprovoked assaults on strong beats. But heightened theatricality, in slow movements as well as fast, is surely what this music is all about. Nor is there a want of poetry where apt. Violinist Alessandro Tampieri spins an eloquent cantilena in the Andantes of RV167 and RV163, while the drifting harmonies in the ‘lagoon’ movements have a mesmeric hushed intensity.
Tampieri also excels in five of Vivaldi’s viola d’amore concertos, probably composed for the Pietà’s famous Anna Maria, though the composer was reportedly a dab hand at the instrument himself. Dantone and his players ensure that Vivaldi’s elemental, explosive energy is never short-changed. Tampieri dispatches the reams of bravura passagework with fire and grace, and adds his own entertaining, even crazy cadenzas that exploit the deep, buzzy resonance of the viola d’amore’s sympathetic strings. But this flavoursome instrument also inspired music of reflective delicacy, not only in the slow movements (among which RV394’s floating siciliano is a highlight) but also in Allegros like the first movement of RV397 and the finale of the airy A major Concerto, RV396. In fantasy, caprice and sheer virtuosity Tampieri is at least a match for his fellow Italian Fabio Biondi (Virgin, 11/07).
It seems churlish to end with a gripe. Why, though, do Naïve include only five of the six viola d’amore concertos on the second disc (running to just 48 minutes), when there would have been room to spare for the sixth, plus the delectable concerto for viola d’amore and lute?
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