VIVALDI: THE QUATTRO STAGIONI, Brecon Baroque, Rachel Podger/Channel Classics SACD CCSSA40318  For the countless admirers of the playing of Rachel Podger and her Period group Brecon Baroque this latest recording of Vivaldi’s ‘Le Quattro Stagioni’ (The Four Seasons) – the most celebrated four violin concertos drawn from his Op. 8 set of 12 violin concertos entitled ‘Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione’ (The Trial of Harmony and Invention) – will be a mandatory purchase.

Having already made superlative accounts for Channel Classics of Vivaldi’s ‘La Stravaganza’ Op.4, ‘La Cetra’ Op.9 and ‘L’Estro Armonico’ Op.3 (the latter with Brecon Baroque) – thirty six concertos in total – it is perhaps not surprising that Podger has, until now, avoided adding to the hundreds of recordings of ‘Le Quattro Stagioni’ competing for attention in the catalogue. The violinist’s celebration of her 50th birthday has been the stimulus for this latest enterprise and it proves to be worthwhile in every way. The world-class virtuosi who together comprise Brecon Baroque have an unrivalled grasp of period style and this may be one reason why Podger decided to perform the work with one instrument to a part, a decision that brings each of her trusted colleagues into the spotlight as much as the principal soloist and director herself. The line-up consists of Johannes Pramsohler and Sabine Stoffer (violins), Jane Rogers (viola), Alison McGillivray (violoncello), Jan Spencer (violone), Daniele Caminiti (theorbo) and Marcin Świątkiewicz (harpsichord/chamber organ) who both individually and collectively contribute as much as the soloist to the success of these performances. For some listeners used to performances with larger bodies of strings the relatively lean textures here may come as a shock, but one’s ear quickly adjusts to this and we are able to relish to the full the remarkable purity of the burnished sound and the colouristic opportunities offered to each instrumentalist, especially from the lute and theorbo. Needless to say Podger’s peerless execution of the solo part in each concerto is beyond reproach as is the abundant imagination she displays in ensuring that every aspect of Vivaldi’s pictorial imagery is perfectly defined for the listener. Pacing of the outer movements all four concertos is relaxed, but always full of rhythmic zest, while the reflective central movements are imbued with a mesmerising beauty, free from any indulgence. Most (though by no means all) versions of ‘The Four Seasons’ on disc add one of more fillers to the main work. Here the theme of Vivaldi compositions with programmatic titles is continued with the addition of three such concertos – the intimate ‘Il Riposo per Il Santissimo Natale’, RV 270, the lyrical’ Concerto L’Amoroso’ RV271 and finally the spectacular ‘Concerto Il Grosso Mogul’ RV208 – that add up to give this SACD a generous total playing time of 75.24. Rachel Podger’s lovely cantabile playing and seamless line characterise the first two of these concertos while her dazzling virtuosity is given free rein, especially in the scintillating cadenza that concludes the latter. It will come as no surprise to discover that the Channel Classics team (recording engineer Jared Sacks and producer Jonathan Freeman-Attwood) have done full justice to these musicians by providing a beautifully balanced recording (5.0 channel DSD) of unparalleled realism that perfectly recreates the fine acoustic of St. Jude’s Church, London where from the 9th to the 12th of October 2017 the sessions took place. With the ever-burgeoning multiplicity of recordings of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ it is difficult for any newcomer to demand attention in what is arguably the most fiercely competitive market for any classical work. However, here we have a fresh, uplifting account of Vivaldi’s ubiquitous masterpiece performed impeccably by one of the world’s finest period violinists and recorded in state-of the art sound. What more needs to be said?

WALTON: VIOLA CONCERTO, etc., James Ehnes / BBC SO / Edward Gardner CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5210  The third release in Edward Gardner’s excellent Walton survey for Chandos features three of the composer’s less frequently performed works, beginning with his Viola Concerto. This was composed in 1928/29, at the suggestion of Sir Thomas Beecham, and was originally intended for the eminent viola player Lionel Tertis who initially rejected it. Walton revised the concerto in 1936 and again in 1961 in which the composer rescored the work for a smaller orchestra – double instead of triple woodwind, the omission of one trumpet and tuba but adding a harp – and it is this final version that is given here with the incomparable James Ehnes as soloist. Ehnes has already recorded Walton’s Violin Concerto for another label (unfortunately not on SACD), but on this new release he demonstrates that he is equally adept on his second instrument. The Viola Concerto is essentially a romantic work full of lyrical melancholy, ideally suited to the viola’s uniquely introspective timbre, though the central scherzo displays Walton’s characteristic rhythmic pungency. Ehnes, performing on a viola made c. 1740 by Carlo Bergonzi, gives a superbly poised and typically nuanced account of the work. The opening ‘Andante comodo’ allows appreciation of the silken sounds he draws from his instrument while the movement that follows marked ‘Vivo, e molto preciso’ demonstrates his unforced virtuosity to the full. The accompaniment from Gardner and the BBC SO is always alert while the balance between soloist and orchestra is very natural with no undue spotlighting of the solo viola. I can’t imagine Ehnes’s recording of this concerto being equalled let alone surpassed in the foreseeable future. In 1970 the conductor Neville Marriner tried unsuccessfully to persuade Walton to write a brand new work for his Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, but Marriner was able to persuade the composer that his String Quartet of 1945-47 might be transcribed for string orchestra. With the assistance of Walton’s colleague and friend Malcolm Arnold the work was undertaken resulting in the ‘Sonata for String Orchestra’ heard here.The work is much more than a mere transcription of the Quartet. Walton made a number of changes to the original 1st movement and, by alloting many passages to solo instruments, he was able to provide intriguing contrasts in each of the four movements in addition to keeping textures clear. Aided by the wide-ranging Chandos recording, the interchange between the passages for solo quartet and the full string ensemble are startlingly etched, while the richness and athleticism of the BBC SO string section is beyond reproach. Walton’s ‘Partita for Orchestra’, the final work on this SACD was the result a commission from George Szell in 1955 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Cleveland Orchestra of which he was the musical director. Amazingly Szell’s 1959 recording of this brilliant work was an early release on single layer SACD and is still in the catalogue. The work has three short movements whose titles are self explanatory. The two vigorous outer movements (Toccata Brioso and Giga Burlesca) use the full orchestra and require the maximem virtuosity from the players, while contrast of mood and pace are provided by the central ‘Pastorale Siciliana’ that opens with a duet between solo viola and solo oboe. To quote from the composer’s typically laconic programme notes for the first performance: “My Partita poses no problems, has no ulterior motive or meaning behind it and makes no attempt to ponder the imponderables”. Gardner and the BBC Symphony rise to the challenges of this engaging piece with terrific incisive playing in which the outer movements fairly crackle with kinetic thrust, while the middle movement moves with an easy grace thanks to the conductor’s flowing tempo. The crisp Chandos recording captures every detail of Walton’s spicy orchestration making this version in every way a worthy successor to Szell’s classic recording of the piece.In addition to the excellent engineering of Ralph Couzens, all three works benefit from the warm acoustic of the Watford Colosseum where they were recorded (17 and 18 June 2017) and I hope we will not have to wait too long for further Walton releases on SACD from this team – Belshazzar’s Feast and the two Coronation marches immediately spring to mind. Highly recommended to all Walton admirers.