hints, allegations and things left unsaid...
flickr | feed | latest | last 10 

The Four Seasons
The history of western classical music dates back to over 400 years. Since perfect recordings of musical performances were not possible until just a few decades ago, we do not have any “sonic” records of music of that era. What we do possess is written music.

The closer an era is to the present day; the easier it is to procure music from that era – for reasons that might not always be entirely obvious.

In Baroque period (17th- early 18th century) the composers usually produced very few hard copies of a work. The church and royalty were the chief consumers of music and there was little need to produce music for public consumption. Even in the early classical period, it was common for a composer to present his student with the sole copy of a work written exclusively for him/her (this is especially true for smaller chamber/solo works). For example, we still don’t know the number of Piano Sonatas that Haydn wrote accurately – he would gift his work to his students or dedicatees without making a copy for himself!

Fortunately, in 18th and 19th centuries, sale of sheet music became a flourishing trade. While the composers did make a good deal of their living by writing music for the court, the nobility and their echelons of patrons – usually of aristocratic lineage; a significant portion of their incomes also came through royalties from the sale of their music. No wonder we find examples of even the greatest of composers (including two of my favorites – Beethoven and Chopin!) driving astute bargains with their publishers (some of those publishing houses survive to date!) – at times employing somewhat petty (dare I say unscrupulous) means to get the best price for their music. Even more so when rights for sales in countries other than the composer’s place of origin were at stake. A burgeoning middle class, later ensured, the popularity and profitability of this trade (besides music for the professionals, easier music/rearrangements for amateurs was always in great demand) which in a way insured our ability to get in touch with our musical past even centuries later.

There is however a catch. To simply have the music played by an assembly of virtuosos on the requisite instruments does by no means guarantee that you are hearing music just as the composer intended it to be heard. This is especially true for music of Baroque origins. Musical instruments have greatly evolved over the years – their range, tonality, sonority have all undergone remarkable changes – usually for better. Their very evolution also makes them ill-suited to honest reproduction of music written much before their years. Baroque therefore is best heard, on what we aficionados (pardon the traces of intellectual snobbery in this ‘we’) call, “period instruments” or replicas thereof (a feat next to impossible as far as the bowed instruments go – otherwise the Tonois, The Stradivarii, The Amatis, and The Bussottis wouldn’t be fetching millions of dollars under the auction gavel). To make matters harder, Baroque composers typically left ample room in their music for personal interpretative filigreeing. Thus to play Baroque well, you need to study the period, the composer and then hope that you can surmise the intended nuances - provided you have managed to acquire the right tools of the trade!

Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is a work from the Baroque period which is familiar even to non-listeners of western classical. The opening motif of the first movement from “Spring” has been subjected to countless abuses by the advertising industry. And despite being one of the most recorded western classical works (besides Beethoven’s 9th), the recordings I had owned till date left a lot to be desired.

My first complete recording of the Four Seasons was by London Symphony Orchestra (I forget the name of violin soloist). My gripe – an orchestra that sounded too “full”, too modern and a recording marked by some technical blemishes. The playing both by the soloist and the orchestra is impeccable but clearly sounds like a very 20th century interpretation of an 18th century work.

I then picked a copy of this work on Sony Classical – this time a DVD! The legendry Herbert Von Karajan conducted Berliner Philharmonic, with his protégé Anne-Sophie Mutter on the violin. It is this DVD that caused me to develop a strong distaste for live recordings of classical works! Inadvertently during, diminuendo of the soulful slower movements, some member of the audience would break into a coughing fit, ruining the recording thoroughly. To add insult to injury, Anne-Sophie Mutter’s rendition of final movement of Summer (a stiff test of a violinists musicianship) was but botched. Intentionally or unintentionally she excluded a crucial tremolo from the movement altogether and played it cantabile!

At last I came across a recording which had all the ingredients that I had been keenly looking for. A “light” orchestra playing on period instruments, a virtuoso violinist, and a modern digital recording! In the first edition of the Four Seasons, Vivaldi not only wrote a sonnet to describe each “season”, but also indicated within the score the “effects” he desired the musicians to produce. To quote Andrea Marcon (the conductor of Venice Baroque Orchestra featured in the recording) – “to be a true performer of the Four Seasons – indeed, all of Vivaldi – you must be like an actor interpreting the text.” Sadly, most recordings feign oblivion to these finer details (or fail to make their attention to the nitty-gritty obvious!).

This recording with Giuliano Carmignola on the solo violin was brought to my attention by a friend who had heard rave reviews on NPR. I didn’t expect the recording to be available in India anytime soon, but they say that nice things can happen to you around Christmas if you have been a good boy during the year. Since I found the recording at Planet M yesterday, I have another reason to believe that my behavior has been within the prescribed limits of decency ;-).
posted: 27.12.04

Post a Comment

Archives Blogroll

All material posted on this blog is copyrighted and may not be used in any form without the explicit permission of the author.