GMCD 7375 – Vivaldi – The Four Seasons, Music and Sonnets

Robert Atchison (violin), Altamira Chamber Orchestra

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Music and Vision Magazine – January 2012

Sir Michael Gambon swipes a well-earned crust introducing this brand new and shiny-sparkling modern edition of The Four Seasons, with Robert Atchison, making the most of sonnets in many cases better forgotten. Still, a work that everyone must admit has been overplayed to the point of idiocy, gains by the rich baritone of Sir Michael and (especially) the airy glow of Atchison’s elegant violin. The Altamira chamber orchestra (small but staunchly resonant) also supports Atchison’s quicksilver pointillism and more eloquent long phrases to admiration, with the principal cello and viola especially characterful throughout.
Still, the perfectly controlled bow-arm of Atchison – despite the occasional faintly self-indulgent shift – is what makes this recording so special, in a wildly overcrowded field. And it is the pin-point eloquence of his violin’s timbre – now delicate, now powerful, now glowy – that remains with the listener, after the recording is finished: along with the dark colouration of his D-string and his wonderfully vivid double-stops. This is a recording that sounds far better than that of many hugely celebrated violinists, and makes one wonder where Atchison has been keeping his sweeping phrasing, his dolce tone, and his effortlessly silvery upper register – aside of course from earning money in session-work etc – in which such talent is frankly wasted.
It is possible to cavil at the speeds of some of these movements, but only momentarily, because Robert Atchison has elected the speeds in each case best suited to his round and golden violin tone (which, frankly, was probably also the case in Vivaldi’s day, with the very earliest performers). Here is no pre-determined furious speed or lazy ease, but what lies most easily under the fingers, which probably contributes to the organic feel of the whole.
So: you already have the mercurial (and faintly mad) Four Seasons of Nigel Kennedy plus Simon Standage’s classic versions with the English Concert, plus the disaster-zone of the 1999 disc by Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Norwegian Trondheim Soloists (a present from a well-meaning adult pupil) besides? So do I. I still think that – in most moods, and most temperatures – Atchison’s might be my favourite. After all, we don’t know for sure, but it’s poss that Vivaldi himself wrote the sonnets Sir Michael so tastefully intones. And Atchison combines exactly the right amount of swash and buckle without going nuts (no names, no pack drill …)
Copyright ? 13 January 2012 Alice McVeigh

Gramophone January 2012

The latest eight seasons made in San Francisco and London
It’s a tribute both to Vivaldi’s music and to the present performers that two such different recordings of The For Sesions can be so satisfying to the same listener. A former member of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and co-principal to Iona Brovm, violinist Robert Atchison formed the modern-instrument Altamira Orchestra in 2009. This is their first recording, on which they are joined by legendary British actor Sir Michael Gambon, who reads Vivaldi’s sonnets in an English translation by Jordan Lancaster.
Far from being a distraction, Gambon’s mellow intoning of Vivaldi’s word-paintings (themselves based on lost paintings by Marco Ricci), like Patrick Stewart’s for Arnie Roth and Musica Anima (American Gramaphone [sic]), enhance the music’s word-painting – a true feast for the senses. Atchison is all elegance and refinement; this is a very English Vivaldi, not without drama but closer in spirit to Alan Loveday’s 1970 recording with the ASMF than to Iona Brown’s more than a quarter of a century later. There is a pleasing dreamlike, almost yearning quality here: this is a wistful looking back on the past rather than an attempt to recreate it.
Period-instrument band Philharmonia Baroque’s recording is the third to be released by their own label, which was launched in January 2011 to celebrate their 30th anniversary. Baroque violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock is a PBO regular, Having performed with them as soloist, concertmaster and leader since 1981. She plays a 1660 Guarneri.
In contrast to Atchison’s approach, this is very much in the HIP camp: the tempi are brisker (compare the former’s 3’00” in the Largo of `Spring’ with McGegan’s 2′ 18″), the string tone more transparent, the downbeats more pronounced and the attack and articulation far more varied. There is also liberal ornamentation and rhetorical flourish from Blumenstock, though she is less mannered and less driven than Italians such as Fabio Biondi. In contrast to Atchinson’s vocal, horizontal approach, Blumenstock is vertical, the pulse energised more though adumbration of the underlying harmonic structure. The effect is extraordinary.
Both recordings are equally satisfying but offer entirely different solutions to the same problem; they also offer different fillers. The choice is yours. William Yeoman

MusicWeb International – December 2011

The world does not lack for recordings of The Four Seasons, but still they come. This latest entrant, however, has an appealing and rare component which is the interpolation of the ‘descriptive captions’, read by Sir Michael Gambon. These, or the Sonnets, from which they largely derive, are often reprinted in booklets of the music, but are very seldom read in the context of the performance, as they are here. Gambon was in a studio, whilst the music was recorded in a church, and the two acoustics retain independence, and have not been ‘blended’.
As Albert Sammons said to Josef Szigeti at a concert once; ‘it doesn’t much matter what Kreisler plays, it’s that tone we come to hear.’ The same is true of the Great Gambon. Whether it’s Arthur Miller or an increasingly wide portfolio of television advertisements, the man has cornered the market in ingratiating, conversational warmth. He reads the captions with unselfconscious directness. The translations are by Dr. Jordan Lancaster, and they are nicely done. I only bridled at the phrase ‘worst fears materialise’, which sounds like an economic forecast, not a shepherd’s concern for an impending storm. Very properly they are read as prose; these are not the Sonneti. There are two occasions where the music begins softly behind the reading of a caption, the music becoming louder as the lines finish. I’m sure some will deprecate the effect, but I can’t say I disliked it.
Robert Atchison is the neat soloist and the Altamira Chamber Orchestra supports him. Their line-up is 4-4-3-2-1 and harpsichord/organ, and they play modern set-up instruments. The performance is quite spacious in places, with strong contrasts sometimes between relaxed material and explosive virtuoso passagework. The performance is strong on languor and warmth, and an almost proto bel canto sense of line, too. The organs registrations are discreetly accomplished; I particularly liked them in the first movement of Summer, in both unisons and behind Atchison in his solo passages. If you have become used to Tarrantino-like interpretations of this work; metallic rainfall, Baskervillesque dogs, Armageddon-like storms, nature at its most malign, music at its most visceral, then you will find this performance too tame, discreet, and understated. If, however, you appreciate the musical approach to, say the Adagio and piano/Presto and forte contrasts in the central Summer movement, or the simplicity of Winter’s Largo, then you will be well content. This last, with sensitive organ support, and nice orchestral pizzicati, is even enlivened by discreet portamenti from Atchison and some simple ornamentation toward the final phrase – the last note of which is held for some considerable time, as if he couldn’t bear to let it go. I must admit a strong prejudice in favour of this kind of approach. I’m sure we’ve all heard performances where it’s been ornamented to death.
There is an additional work, the Concerto in E flat major Op.8 No.5 La tempesta di Mare, another nature tone-setting, the performance of which shares qualities of elasticity, characterisation and reserved musicality with the major work.
If you’ve sometimes been confused by The Four Seasons, by what is being depicted and when, in what order – I’m sure many of us have, we just don’t like to admit it (a bit like the depictions in the Enigma Variations) – then here’s a handy way to fuse text and music. Characterization here is decidedly not outsize, so bagpipe drones, torrent and animal life is more Chardin than Goya. But I rather warmed to these well recorded, expansive performances.
Jonathan Woolf
I rather warmed to these well recorded, expansive performances.