One of a Kind
Few musical works of consequence have endured the variety of treatment, ranging from the ecstatic to the abusive, that befalls Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Even though its time in the spotlight has been relatively brief (composed around 1715, it never really attracted notice until some 200 years later), the musical world has made up for lost time with plenty to spare. The work’s shabby treatment at the Hollywood Bowl last week, dubbed “a mess” far too kindly by the Times’ Mark Swed, was by no means the worst misuse visited upon this otherwise charming, imaginative, inventive and infinitely beautiful music.
What is there about The Seasons that invites such wanton tampering — a transformation at the Bowl into a raucous and out-of-focus salsa travesty, elsewhere mutations into a Yiddish-cum-klezmer songfest, fodder for a koto-based rock band, a tango fest, tunes to download to your cell phone? Nobody has vented this violence on any other of Vivaldi’s 600 concerti or those of Corelli or Geminiani. Vivaldi here stands forth as the victim of his own ingenuity, the author of a one-of-a-kind set of serenely simple-minded sonnets celebrating the rural life during the passing of the seasons, and of the musical settings to accompany those verses day by day. There is nothing particularly earthshaking in the poems, nor scenic in their scene painting; dogs bark, flies buzz, thunder roars, warm feelings at the fireside are underscored by a warm-hearted tune. The pictorial elements are common stuff; they abound in poems and pictures of the time, including the deservedly famous set by Boucher. Other composers have tried their hands at programmatic effects, often with much more sophisticated musical usage — the “Biblical Sonatas” of Johann Kuhnau, for example, in which the stone from David’s sling all but hits you in your eye. Yet it’s the pretty tunes of Vivaldi that light the lights.
Kuhnau and Vivaldi make their programmatic points far better on their own than all the interfering forces the other night from Jimmy Bosch’s Salsa Dura band and the acrobatic fiddling of Pekka Kuusisto (which was, at least, cute if painfully overdrawn). It was most of all depressing to find in the middle of all this conductor Nicholas McGegan, the excellent Britisher who has led some of the most honest and forthright performances of music of this genre — on discs and even at the Bowl. For about five minutes in this grossly over-calculated concert, in fact, there was a brief visitation by the McGegan of old: the slow movement of a Handel concerto (Opus 3 No. 2), with the solo oboe of Anne Marie Gabriele fashioning a silver thread directly to the stars, and the strings around her in hushed reverence.
Come to think of it, it strikes me that the classical-music audience this summer has been shortchanged more than this once, in that several “Classical Nights” among the promised “Symphonies Under the Stars” have turned into something more like “Perversions Under the Planets.” First there was the night of Amadeus, too much of that particular dramatic travesty luridly read, too little music. There followed a dance program of shredded Bach bits. Then came this Vivaldi, and on September 12 comes a program of film bits conducted not by John Mauceri — who knows how to vitalize this kind of presentation — but by Leonard Slatkin, who surely must have other music to offer. Four “classic” nights out of 10 this summer turn out “classic” only by the most generous stretch of the imagination.
Angels in America
In these doleful days of the disappearing disc, there is infinite heartsease in the latest treasure from Harmonia Mundi, wherein Anonymous 4, that superlative distaff ensemble that first sang its way into our hearts via the abstruse meanderings of ancient polyphonies, lately turns its collective imagination and glorious intonation toward our own indigenous lore. Gloryland is their second disc, after American Angels (2003), to re-create the heritage of American gospel, revival and rural folk song; the new issue adds the artful collaboration of violinist Darol Anger and Mike Marshall on mandolins and guitar.
It’s difficult to describe the beauty of these two discs, simply because my eyes fill and I can’t see to type. The purity of the four voices — Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner (relatively new to the group) and Johanna Maria Rose — renders the lines of the 14th-century polyphonies astonishingly clear without compromising the harmonies toward a later style. Some of that identity with very old musical textures carries over here as well; naive as those old revival singers may have been, their singing reached toward an artistry, and there are counterpoints in these old hymnals and other collections that combine into sonorities simply beautiful by any measurement. ?I defy anyone to make his or her way through No. 5, the gospel song “Where we’ll never grow old,” without picking up the needle, or pushing the button — or whatever it is that people do these days — to play the song once again, and then again.
What astounds me no less is the richness in the solo singing: the way Bronx-born Susan, to cite one example of many, sings of “The Wagoner’s Lad” with the folkish accent so firmly in control and, just as firmly, the exact harmonic “bending” of every phrase. I’ve admired this quality in Anonymous 4 from the start, and it’s gratifying to hear them carry it intact from one kind of music, across centuries and a wide ocean, to another. Beyond these highfalutin words: This is a wondrous, essential, fabulous collection. If all this talk about the end of the disc era has slowed your collecting zeal, wait out this one final spark of life. After all, these songs were meant to restore the faith.?