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.

6 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.


  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.


  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.
    Les Berger


  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.


  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,


  6. Hello Rob
    I have just caught up with FROM LONNIE DONEGAN TO VIVALDI VIA BACH on Facebook ( I don’t look very often). There are certain parallels in how we both came to classical music. You were very lucky indeed if you had a miniature transistor radio in those days. In the 50s we had a rather bulky valve portable that was certainly too big to secrete in school.

    I once heard Ted Perry reminiscing about his early days and it was remarkably similar to mine. We had a house in a remote part of North Devon, Parracombe. My Mother had been a nurse so she used to take in Nurses as lodgers in the Summer and my sister and I were shipped off to my Grandmother’s house in Lower Heyford, Northants for 6 weeks. She had two sons who both collected records which they played on a huge cabinet gramophone. One died and the other emigrated so when I visited there were two huge piles of discs, 10″ and 12″. They had differing tastes. One collected dance music, particularly tangos, and loads of Larry Adler and the other Operatic arias and a smattering of chamber music. I did not discriminate but ploughed through them all. I also had a crystal set. We were near the Daventry transmitter and all I could get was the Third Programme! Ted recalled the song ‘The music goes round and around and it comes out here’. Well that was one of my discs as well. One night, after my Grandmother had gone to bed, I switched on her radio and they were playing Smetana’s first quartet and I ended up dancing round the room in excitement. I would have been about 10.
    Years later when I was 13 I bought an old HMV wind-up with a horn on top ( but without the dog looking down) I brought home a fair number of 78s from my Grandmother and used to play them to my friends. The radio Light Programme did not interest me much (all Doris Day I recall) but one day I heard Blue suede shoes. I bought that as a 78 and it sounded so loud on my gramophone with Hound Dog on the reverse. I used to stuff socks down the horn.Then my sister overwound the machine and broke the spring so my parents bought me an electric player. This was just at the time 45s and LPs were around. I used to work on the local farms to earn money for discs. One day’s worth of weeding turnips would buy me an LP. More Presley and Fats Domino but my first LP was Carousel and then Holst’s the Planets and then a 10inch LP of Jussi Bjorling Italian arias. So I remained very catholic in my tastes. Even today Presley, Domino etc still get played. My friends (local farmer’s lads and villagers) used to come round to listen to my records so they all got a pretty catholic musical education.
    Eventually we moved to Leeds in time for my sixth form studies. We had been told we were going to emigrate to Australia but my Father’s employers made him an offer he could not refuse so we went to Leeds instead. To make up for my disappointment he bought me a large stereo radiogram and one of his colleagues came round with the newly released Das Reingold. A revelation which meant I just could no longer listen to Italian Opera for a while. Leeds had a very good record library and I also met members of the National Youth orchestra and it just went from there with MusicWeb being the culmination.

    Len Mullenger
    Founder of MusicWeb International
    mobile 07913 999009
    26, Alfriston Road, Coventry, CV3 6FH UK


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