Panning back nearly seventy years my musical idols were Lonnie Donegan, Elvis, the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly. Then I caught the ‘classical’ bug and can vividly remember spending a free school period listening to Handel Concerti grossi, a tiny transistor radio that I had smuggled into the classroom pressed to my ear. I was enthralled by the music’s rhythm and counterpoint (not that I would have known what counterpoint meant in those days). Now, just suppose I had discovered Baroque music that combined rhythm and contrapuntal interest in the way that Rinaldo Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano manage with Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico (The Harmonic Inspiration), Op. 3 which was his first collection of concertos (twelve in all) to appear in print. I had no music teacher to speak of, but with Alessandrini the very act of listening would have opened worlds to me (the set is on naïve OP 7367, 2 cds, c£16:25; release date: 22nd April).
However panning back more than a couple of centuries, let me ask you this: can any group of kids ever have enjoyed a greater music teacher than did the orphaned and abandoned girls who filled the Pio Ospedale della Pietà in Venice? We’re told that the standard of their performances was exceptionally high and the music that Antonio Vivaldi wrote for them was among the finest of the period. Try the first concerto in D (for four violins), the dancing first Allegro, pirouetting tiptoe and at speed. The second (G Minor) Concerto opens like a march, Alessandrini’s way with it tight and abrasive until the ethereal quiet violins above it lead us to a tautly argued Allegro. Pure delight, the finale donning a Handelian lilt.
Next up there’s a fairly extrovert G major Concerto which leads us to the set’s great – and significant – novelty, the first of six works that Bach based on music from this very collection, Bach being a fan of Vivaldi, inspired no doubt by Prince Johann Ernst, a lover of Italian keyboard music in general. Bach’s reworkings (for solo or multiple instruments) enrich the music’s already colourful textures, as well as keying in added contrapuntal elements, most famously to the 10th Concerto, originally for four violins but with Bach switching to the more percussive sound of four harpsichords. The finale in particular has a celebratory feel to it whereas the Largo from Concerto No. 11 (an organ work in Bach’s arrangement) does credit to both composers: Baroque instrumental music doesn’t come lovelier than this. But what am I saying? The Largo from Concerto No. 5 in A is another remarkable movement, where violinist Andrea Rognoni weaves a bright, sinuous line above a delicately pointed accompaniment. Rognoni also offers us the familiar solo violin concerto (No. 6 in the series), a performance notable as much for its agility as for its gentle propulsiveness and for a Largo swathed in mystery. But perhaps the grandest work in the opus is the 9th Concerto, grander even with Bach (Alessandrini’s approach on solo harpsichord recalls, at least in part, the regal manners of the ‘Priestess of Bach’ Wanda Landowska).
Above all I would recommend this superb set to listeners who think of Vivaldi as pushing the same gondola out time and again, each concerto sounding much like the last. Not true. The playing is all one could wish for and so is the recorded sound. If you’d like to sample, it’s up for one and all on Spotify.