The eloquent blurb writers at Naxos, the little record label that could, have been lighting the sky lately with pronouncements on their latest reissued treasure, the first-ever recording (or so they say) of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, newly dusted off to join the 80 or so versions of that much-loved work already on the market. The violinist, also much loved, is the late Louis Kaufman; the performance dates from 1947, and its reappearance at this time has been enough to send me scurrying back into history — especially the performance history of the work itself, which is somewhat remarkable. This recording, by the way, is on the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry as the “first LP recording” of Vivaldi’s elegant conceit, a notation that might merit some revision.
Let’s start around 1920. Even in Vivaldi’s native Italy, almost nothing was known of his music at that time: a few overarranged pages from concertos, a few arias from his operas. Several Italian musicians, however, became obsessed with implanting a native persona in their musical life, to set it apart from the heavy German influence. One of the first things they did was to exhume these four unknown Vivaldi concertos and publish them — in a version for (!) piano duet. In 1927, the highly regarded conductor Bernardino Molinari (who later was to become the teacher of Carlo Maria Giulini) fashioned his orchestration of The Four Seasons, making sure to dedicate it, with all the proper Italianate flourishes, to Benito Mussolini as testimony to the rebirth of Italy’s pride in its grand orchestral heritage. That version, with full symphonic-size string sections (16 first violins), organ, grand pianos doctored to sound like harpsichords, harps, and a violin soloist well versed in the expressive methods of Italian bel canto at its weepiest, found its way to records in 1942 — six 78-rpm discs on the CETRA label. You can still buy it on CD online — at least I did, last month — on the Aura-Music label, and it’s a hoot.
And that, friends, was the first-ever recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It was already in circulation when Louis Kaufman made his (also on six 78s); I know, because I worked for the importer, in New York, at the time. Kaufman, a well-known studio musician on both coasts and a respected concert artist as well, recorded his performance on the Concert Hall Society label, an upscale producer (“discs pressed from gold-sputtered masters”), with a small orchestra conducted by Henry Swoboda. Then and now, the project lay claim to representing the “authentic” Vivaldi (as opposed to the Colosseum-size Molinari Vivaldi), but it is no such thing. Kaufman’s solo performance has the same inauthentic juiciness — sliding into notes, slowing down at the ends of phrases — as his predecessor’s. When either of them takes on the slow movement of “Winter,” you can almost hear Andrea Bocelli wailing out that gorgeous tune. The orchestra under Swoboda lacks clarity; a harpsichord is credited in the notes, but I don’t hear it; and I think that? that’s a (horror!) harp in the slow movement of “Autumn.” (Both recordings, by the way, were reissued on LP in the U.S. in 1950.)
Don’t blame Louis Kaufman. What he delivers is a beautiful rendition of the historically uninformed way violinists were performing Vivaldi, Corelli and the rest of the Baroque orchestral repertory in 1947. A year later Renato Fasano, who had succeeded Molinari at the Santa Cecilia Academy in Rome, founded the first “authentic” ensemble for this music. His Virtuosi di Roma opened people’s ears to smaller, cleaner sounds, initiated the “Baroque Revival” that still goes on, and led eventually to the 80 Four Seasons, etc.? recordings now at your local discothèque.
A generation before Vivaldi, and far to the north, the violin had come into its own as an expressive and virtuosic instrument to rival the human voice. Salzburg’s Heinrich Biber (1644 1704) is the new star on the charts; two recent discs of his music for solo violin, riding high and wild above a supporting organ and/or harpsichord, fill your ears with vast torrents of sound. On a two-disc Harmonia Mundi set, Andrew Manze plays Biber’s Rosary Sonatas, 15 short works whose titles carry you through the “mysteries” of Christian faith from the Annunciation to the Life of Jesus to the Resurrection and the Assumption, each short work a tense, fabulously beautiful meditation or outcry. On an ECM disc no less irresistible, John Holloway traces Biber’s depiction, with fanfares and whooshing onslaughts in ecstatic virtuosity, of the Turkish invasion of Austria, the siege at Vienna and the ultimate victory of Christians over the infidel invaders.
The notion of entrusting all this to a solo violin may strike you as naive, especially since Biber took great care to inscribe in his manuscripts the exact identification for every episode in his musical retelling; in this regard, his work prefigures the charming lines of poetry that Vivaldi inscribed along with his Seasons. What delights me in this music is the sense of trying things out. The violin itself was new at the time; the great Italian makers were just then sending their wares throughout Europe. Biber and his colleagues messed around with experimental tunings — scordatura, later to be used by Mahler and many others — which allowed them unusual harmonic shadings. Both these performers, consummate Brits in whom the spirit of exploration burns bright, capture in their playing a sense of the creative joy that must have gone into these oddball little pieces at the start. This may be the world’s first over-the-top music, and the playing matches it marvelously well.
Back another two centuries, there was Antoine Busnois (boon-WAH, d. 1492), principally employed at the Burgundian court. He is newly celebrated by a disc on Harmonia Mundi of essential, unearthly beauty: songs, motets and a Mass. This is early Renaissance counterpoint; listening from one early work of his to another of later date is like watching an organism hatch in a petri dish. The harmonic sense emerges, the dominant-to-tonic cadences begin to sound like other music we know. But the older pieces have their own beauty: the way lines of counterpoint twist around one another to form a rich if tangled fabric. The very distance of these harmonies from more familiar territory (Palestrina, say) suggests the outlines of the church of St. Sauveur at Bruges, whose vastness the music of Busnois once filled. Performances are by the Orlando Consort, a men’s quartet that sang here a couple of weeks ago in one of the “Historic Sites” concerts that my own tangled fabric of a schedule made unreachable. This disc is fair recompense.