Site review by ramesh February 16, 2007
|As many readers will be aware, BIS are in the midst of revamping their new releases into eventually being entirely in the hybrid SACD format. This undertaking is two-pronged. Firstly, the company is continuing with its policy of innovative new repertoire, but additionally, it is rerecording much of the standard non-vocal repertoire to take advantage of the high-resolution medium.
This new recording of that Mother OF All Baroque Warhorses, Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons', is an extraordinary attempt to marry both the novel and the familiar. BIS already have a best-selling 'Four Seasons' on CD, performed by Nils-Erik Sparf with the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble. For this SACD, BIS have enlisted the Swedish recorder virtuoso Dan Laurin and the new Polish period instrument group, 'Arte dei Suonatori'. So, here one has a 'Four Seasons' not for violin, but for recorder! The violin line appears subtly adapted and transposed, but there are no truncations of the solo writing. The other three concertos include one for strings only, the G major from the Opus 10 set which was composed for either transverse flute or recorder; and the C minor RV 441 for recorder. As an aside, the booklet has a front jacket photo of a sleeping baby, and on the back, a bearded old man in a singlet and trousers, whom I take to be Robert von Bahr who has lost the shirt off his back due to the high costs of producing audiophile recordings (!)
The interesting booklet notes by Dan Laurin also include translations of the four anonymous sonnets which were published along with the score. In the interesting translation to the sonnet of the concluding allegro of 'Spring' : "To the rustic bagpipe's gay sound / Nymph and shepherd dance beneath / The fair spring sky in all its glory." Laurin stresses the celebration of nature in the verse, and the extremely programmatic texture of the music. Although no bagpipes are included in this transcription, BIS's use of the recorder as the solo instrument is by no means perverse, but in fact, quite the opposite.
The recorder brings a welcome change of aesthetic dimension to this overly familiar music. The rustic, pastoral nature of the music is underlined. As some of the recorder writing appears transposed downwards, there is less the sense of a standard concerto, and more the tone of a concerto grosso in many sections. Along with this change in ambience are other striking alterations in mood. For instance, the wistful, almost melancholic violin line in the Largo of 'Spring' becomes less remote whilst avoiding any slide towards rude earthiness. Dan Laurin plays with astonishing virtuosity, both in terms of dexterity in articulation, and the prodigousness of his breath control. The ornamentation he supplies naturally is adapted more towards the techniques of the recorder. In the Presto of 'Summer' there is an extraordinary moment where he supplies a bagpipe-like drone, in an original coup-de-theatre.
The pastoral sense of the music in this recorder rendition is furthered by the choice of tempi, which are virtually all more middle-of-the-road than one often hears nowadays, without either languid largos or drag-racing prestos. Playing this disc for the first time, I was struck by the similarity of the moderate tempi to the first 'I Musici' Four Seasons, and other early versions from the 1960s. There have been striking changes in the accepted approaches of much classical music over the past half century : Mozart performances have become less overtly emotional, as though the romantic approach meant 'out-of-period-sentiment'. In contrast, the performance of much Italian music from post-Palestrina to the late baroque has swung the other way, ditching the image of gentility and wigs, in favour of the 'daemoniac'. Italian Historically Informed Performance ensembles especially now favour extreme tempi, hairpin crescendos and decrescendos, and brusque accentuation; modern day violinists such as Nigel Kennedy have now bought into this hip-HIP conformity. Little of this dramatic hypertrophy is evident in the BIS recording. For this reason, any immediate comparison of this recording to over-sexed modern performances will make it seem bland and unexceptional. However, as a musical depiction of the sentiments inherent in the four sonnets published with the music, this recording is not only a valid alternative, but in significant respects is artistically more faithful than the superficially more exiting renditions currently available. This disc is a stayer, especially for those who put baroque music first over violin virtuosity.
In terms of recording, an instructive comparison was with Rachel Podger's performance on Channel of the complete 'La Stravaganza' by Vivaldi. Podger plays baroque violin, and her playing has the characteristics of hip-HIP described above. However, the BIS SACD and the Channel SACDs use the same ensemble, recorded in the same Polish church. A photo in the BIS disc shows eight string players. The Channel disc lists twelve strings, although the session photos do not confirm they are all playing at once. Channel use DSD recording, whereas I believe BIS employ PCM.
Despite the use of the same orchestra and recording venue between these different Vivaldi productions, there are enough variables such as microphones to prevent a direct comparison between the different methods of high-resolution digital recording. Comparing these two releases, the differences in sound are striking, whatever their causes. The Channel SACDs sound more closely miked, with a rich, resonant gutty bass. The BIS appears to capture slightly more of the hall acoustic. The sound is leaner, especially in the bass, without being thin. It sounds better balanced, whereas the Channel might approach bass tubbiness in some systems. The close high-impact sound of the Channel ratchets up the excitement of those performances, while the cooler mid-hall presentation of the BIS is also suited to the bucolic nature of Laurin's style. The BIS PCM digital recording of the recorder on this SACD is certainly far superior to the CD sound that Michaela Petri has received from her record companies, with almost complete elimination of 'digital edge' on the high reaches of the recorder's range.
This release will polarise opinion due to the utilisation of the recorder. I have deliberately not searched for any critical opinion on this new SACD, to be entirely spontaneous in my response to it. [ The just-breaking scandal where the pianist Joyce Hatto's extravagantly-praised CD of Liszt's 'Transcendental Etudes has been demonstrated to have been copied from a BIS release by another pianist is a timely reminder of the perils of the herd mentality ]. There is a paucity of contemporary documentation as to the performances of Vivaldi's concertos. The four sonnets appended to the published score of this work are an invaluable indicator of at least some of the composer's intentions, and my enthusiasm for this release is related to how the original conception of this SACD fulfils the spirit of this poetry, if not the letter of the score.