The Four Seasons, a set of four violin concertos by the Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), remains one of the all-time bestsellers in classical recording, with over 200 CD versions currently in print (the large majority of them bad, it must be added as a caveat). Written in 1723 as part of a twelve-concerto series entitled “The Contest Between Harmony and Invention,” The Four Seasons has appeared in endless guises in pop culture, particularly on the soundtracks of films: The Banger Sisters, A View to a Kill, Flubber, Up Close and Personal, Tin Cup, and Salem’s Lot, among countless others.
What makes Vivaldi’s work such an all-encompassing hit? The Four Seasons is a pioneering example of program music, evoking the sounds of nature (birdsong, the buzz of insects, dogs barking, and other effects) with the orchestral ensemble and solo violin. By basing his music on nature, Vivaldi attained lasting universality; had he chosen a subject from Greek mythology as a theme, audiences today might find the subjects arcane. Instead, the “Spring” concerto expresses sprightly high spirits, while the “Winter” concerto still sounds starkly moving. Some listeners disagree, like the composer Igor Stravinsky, who made the oft-reprinted crack that Vivaldi wrote the “same concerto four hundred times.” In fact, Vivaldi wrote even more concertos than that; 500 or so survive. (Some sifting is clearly necessary among the many recordings available.)
The Italian maestro Guido Cantelli (1920-1956) conducted the NBC Symphony in “Winter” from The Four Seasons in 1950, recently transferred to CD by Testament. As conducted by Cantelli, Vivaldi’s work reflects the harsh postwar European winters and stark sufferings of his generation. Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) was another sensualist in sound, which made him a delectable conductor of Vivaldi. His 1966 recording of The Four Seasons, reprinted on Cala, is with the New Philharmonia Orchestra. The performance is distinguished by contributions from some of Britain’s finest orchestral musicians, like the stellar violinist Hugh Bean (1929-2003) and harpsichordist Charles Spinks (1915-1992).
The clarity and balance of the British orchestral ideal, which also allows for the expression of passion, is found on another CD of The Four Seasons played by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, led by its first violinist, Iona Brown (available on Hänssler). When Ms. Brown (1941-2004) died, conductor Neville Marriner offered this apt estimation of her talents: “As a violinist, she embraced the Romantic movement with warmth and passion, and in the early classical repertoire she displayed a fastidious elegance that observed the performing conventions of the 18th century without letting the music dry out.”
For those listeners who prefer an “original instruments” approach, a persuasively affectionate rendition is led by Rinaldo Alessandrini in a CD from Naïve that radiates Mediterranean warmth. The Sicilian violinist and conductor Fabio Biondi (b. 1961) offers a more driven, agitated, and dramatic view of The Four Seasons, without going off the rails into mere hysteria, as some of the “authentic approach” versions do. Biondi’s Europa Galante recorded its first attempt at The Four Seasons in 1991 for the brilliant small label Opus 111. It is well worth hunting down the earlier version, yet his 2003 remake for Virgin Classics also contains supplementary works, as well as dazzling musicianship.
Unlike works of visual art made ridiculous through over-familiarity, like the Mona Lisa, over-recorded music, like The Four Seasons, can be eternally renewed by performances as fine as those mentioned above.