Vivaldi’s most famous work is a set of four violin concertos that actually comprises only the first third of a set of 12 concertos with the overall title Il Cimento dell’Armonia ed dell’Invenzione (The Contest Between Harmony and Invention). The entire cycle contains wonderful, arresting music, but the first four concertos are unique in comprising miniature tone poems that describe the four seasons of the year. To capture the different characteristics of each season, Vivaldi requires the string players to use many different effects, from the fairly familiar plucked strings (pizzicato) to the less often heard "glassy" sound one gets by bowing right next to the violin’s bridge.
Depending on the performer, The Four Seasons can contain myriad intricate variations of sound, which makes it an ideal work for audiophile recording. Especially since the advent of stereo recording in the 1950s, the work has always been popular. One of the first stereo recordings of any repertory that I remember was an audiophile stereo LP of The Four Seasons performed by violinist Jan Tomasow and I Solisti di Zagreb, conducted by Antonio Janigro. Those performances contained little drama; the intention seemed instead to be to make "beautiful music." In the years since, we’ve learned more about Baroque conventions of performance, improvisation, and ornamentation; nowadays, musicians strive not only to convey the beauty of Vivaldi’s writing but also his dramatic way of accurately indicating each image of the season being depicted. (For the publication of The Four Seasons in 1725, Vivaldi wrote detailed program notes, in the form of a sonnet for each concerto, describing precisely which aspect of each season was being musically represented.) The Tacet recording certainly succeeds in that respect. Violinist Daniel Gaede, conductor Wojciech Rajski, and the musicians of the Polish Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra fully realize the composer’s stated intentions. When they play the opening Allegro of La Primavera (Spring), I feel lighthearted and optimistic; when they play the opening of L’Inverno (Winter), I shiver with cold.
But no matter how great a performance, sound makes a difference, and these musicians had nothing to worry about: Tacet’s founder, producer, and engineer, Andreas Spreer, is fastidious about his recording methods, and does not disappoint here. The instruments are heard so clearly that I can follow each individual line and all of the "special effects," a few of which are mentioned above. There are absolutely delightful nuances within nuances. The recording is as subtle as these performances.
For example, in his accompanying sonnet, Vivaldi describes the second movement of L’Inverno: "To remain in quiet contentment by the fireside while outside it is raining." The solo violin plays a "contented" cantabile melody, the first and second violin parts are marked pizzicato for the raindrops, the cello and bass provide a warm pizzicato underpinning, and in the violas, a high, sustained "white" tone is the cold of winter. The harpsichord provides delicate counterpoint to the solo violin’s tune. In this demonstration-caliber recording, all of these gradations are clear as can be.
The harpsichord deserves special mention. Often in recordings of Baroque music, it seems to have its own separate microphone, and while this can make for some lovely sounds, the instrument is not a loud one as a rule. Spreer’s balance is absolutely right for my money: the harpsichord is heard from within the small string orchestra, not as a soloist.
While this hybrid multichannel disc contains standard CD tracks as well as both two- and multichannel SACD tracks, only the two-channel versions are transistor-free; they seem to have just a trace more clarity and warmth than the multichannel tracks. No matter what your setup, you’ll hear fantastic sound from this disc. But make sure you get the right edition (Tacet 0163-4), as there are two in the Tacet catalog. This one is a gem.