Vivaldi: L’Estro Armonico

Brecon Baroque, Rachel Podger
136′
Challenge Classics CCS SA3651S

Any new recording of L’Estro Armonico is most welcome! There simply is not a weak piece among the 12 concertos for one, two or four violins, with or without obbligato cello and continuo – truly, it is a virtuosic display of Vivaldi’s talent, both as composer and as performer; the first time you hear the stratospheric string crossing at the end of the tenth concerto (the one Bach converted into a concerto for four harpsichords), you cannot help but be taken aback. With a group of Brecon Baroque’s calibre, you just know that the playing will be brilliant (in its true sense), and that there will be plenty of energy between the players and in the performances themselves.

As in a previous release, I was especially struck by the very focussed sound of the violas – no shrinking violets here, especially when they are the foundation of the ensemble. I was not, I’m sorry to say, as impressed by the presence of three continuo players; the eighth part-book is not, as Timothy Jones says in his note, for ‘continuo e basso‘ (his quotation marks, suggesting that this is what Roger printed), but “Violone e Cembalo“; now, if the whole premise of L’Estro Armonico is that each partbook was for one player (or, in the last case for a keyboardist with a bass player reading over his/her shoulder – does this ever happen nowadays?), then we should have nine performers, but instead we have 11. In her introduction to the disc, Rachel Podger writes that it is not “often do you witness four violins trying to outdo each other!” – here there are several places where they cede the limelight to the keyboard player, and even a few where it’s the lutenists who improvise in the spaces between chords. Now, I appreciate why it might seem like a very good idea to vary textures over the span of two CDs (and yes, I did listen to them both several times right through!), but I would rather have had just one continuo instrument per concerto, and – if I’m brutally honest – I don’t think I need strummed chords to add to the energy levels; the gypsy moment at the end of the slow movement of the third concerto was excitement enough. I really don’t want to sound too negative, though; I will be very surprised if this doesn’t win awards, too…

Brian Clark