From Lonnie Donegan to Bach via Vivaldi

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.

5 thoughts on “From Lonnie Donegan to Bach via Vivaldi

  1. Brian Gardner

    Hi Rob. Thanks for the Vivaldi/Alessandrini post. Being about the same age as you, my early tastes in music mirror yours, especially Lonnie and Buddy. I had no musical education and came to classical music in my teens through friends and colleagues. My boss introduced me to Bach and Telemann in my 20’s, but it’s taken me many more years to ‘get’ Vivaldi. Rachel Podger’s discs really got me started but I’m loving this Alessandrini which is already available on at least one streaming service. Gramophone also gave it a great write up in the April edition. Thanks again.
    Brian Gardner.

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  2. Thank you so much for responding Brian.Yes, I listened to the set straight through (having previously heard many other versions of the concertos) and loved it. Best wishes. Rob.

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  3. Leslie Berger

    Oh dear, Rob, you write so persuasively that I often feel tempted to buy your recommendations. However, at the age of 79, I have finally promised my wife that five-thousand-plus CDs have to be enough to keep me listening for all the years ahead of me. My collection ranges from Miles Davis, The Beatles and Leonard Cohen to Symphonic works by Ennio Morricone, Pierre Wissner and Havergal Brian – by way of Monteverdi, Shostakovich, Phillip Glass et al. The trouble I have, however, is my insatiable appetite for new discoveries; so when I read your post about Furtwangler’s Beethoven 9 from Bayreuth, I went to Spotify (free edition!) and listened. It was little short of a revelation, particularly that ending, which would have made my hair stand on end if I had enough left. It left me both exhilarated and drained, so thank you for that. It’s time I gave Furtwangler more time. What also impressed me was the recording: despite its age there was a great sense of ‘presence’.
    I also listened in to Mosaic Voices’ Letter To Kamilla, about which you wrote so eloquently in March’s Gramophone. It had many moving moments and it was interesting to hear yet another version of Adon Olom, which we my brother and I used to belt out as kids in schul on shabbas mornings. I was again tempted to buy, but I’ll perhaps buy it for my brother’s birthday (and maybe load it into my Brennan player before posting it!).
    Keep up the postings. Even though I try not to buy, I still read, listen and learn.
    Regards
    Les Berger

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  4. Thanks Les for the lovely post. Yes the Furtwängler is special – no other Ninth (save for others under Furtwängler perhaps) has quite the same effect. Great that you’re still buying and listening, and such a wide range of music too. It’s certainly an uplifting pastime. With fond wishes. Rob.

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  5. Brian Gardner

    Hi Rob.
    Totally agree about Furtwangler and Beethoven 9. Years ago my record shop manager recommended the Lucerne’54 with the Philharmonia which he said was better than Bayreuth’51. Not sure, myself??
    Any chance you could do a post tidying up the various Furtwangler 9’s available?
    Apologies if you’ve done it before and I’ve missed it.
    Best Wishes,
    Brian.

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