Rachel Podger – ‘Vivaldi: La Stravaganza, 12 Violin Concertos’ An SACD review by Mark Jordan

The next time someone asks me that preposterous question, “Is classical music dying?” my response will be simply two words: “Channel Classics”. This relatively young company has thrived in these last few difficult economic years because they are mindful of what a classical recording must be: A work of art in its own right. If all the major corporations who have been cutting classical music from their catalogues understood that it takes art to record true art, perhaps they actually could turn the sort of profit their investors require. But since such visionary thinking remains the scarcest of commodities in the corporate boardrooms of the world, there is a niche in the recording industry for companies led and staffed by devoted, talented people, and this new release from Channel Classics once again sees them at the peak of their profession.

Now, first of all, as a critic, it pains me to give out a full-blown perfect score, but when a disc is so good that I find myself constantly hitting the repeat button and struggling in my notes to find different words for “excellence”, it simply has to be begrudgingly given out. When I first received this two-SACD set, I was afraid that a batch of twelve generally lesser-known violin concertos of Vivaldi might become a chore to wade through. Instead, I was shocked to find myself listening to the whole lot in one sitting, merrily finding each piece to be its own vivid drama. And I have eagerly returned to them several times since. For those who only know ‘The Four Seasons’ or even those who (like me) have only explored the remainder of Op. 8 (‘Il Cimento dell’Armonia e dell’ Invenzione’) the Op. 3 concerti grossi, and a few other “name” concertos, the Opus 4 ‘La Stravaganza’ collection will prove a joyous hunting ground.

Highlights of the set include the alternately fiery and beguiling A minor concerto (No. 4), the rustic A major (No. 5), the eccentric, almost demonic D minor (No. 8), and the outlandishly inventive D major (No. 11). But even past those, there is little to disappoint when the music is performed as persuasively as it is here. For those who accuse Vivaldi of resorting to clichй, these concertos prove that such an evaluation rather misses the point: Vivaldi was thoroughly conversant with the style of his age, and naturally, he used it. But rather than falling back on clichй, Vivaldi is on a constant quest to reinvent the clichйs, rather like a baroque equivalent to what Bob Dylan has done with folk and rock music in our own time. If Vivaldi occasionally fails to reinvent the wheel, it’s not for lack of trying. At those rare points, it takes skillful performers to keep the vehicle rolling, and Rachel Podger and the Polish baroque orchestra Arte dei Suonatori prove worthy to the task, endlessly varying texture and attack to keep the listener on the edge of his or her seat.

Podger has an extensive background playing with early music groups in London and elsewhere, but she has really been coming into her own in recent years, with a strong series of recordings from Channel Classics. This new one surely becomes the crown of her catalogue, though. The first concerto (in B-flat) quickly showcases Podger’s lively touch, but succeeding movements of subsequent concertos show a full spectrum of the art of violin playing. Consider for instance, the plangent, ballad-like song of the Adagio from the Concerto No. 10, or the starchy, dramatic chords of the Largo in Concerto No. 2. Contrast that with the spring-loaded bounce of the final Allegro in the Concerto No. 5 in A, or the same concerto’s opening birdsong, and one hardly knows what to expect next.

Arte dei Suonatori fits Podger’s wide-ranging approach hand-in-glove. It would appear that they have worked extensively with her, for they match her step-by-step through Vivaldi’s daredevil twists and turns, from hushed unease to explosive joy, from mischievous romping to languorous singing. Amazing, too, is the sound-world created for each concerto. Only the most dramatic concerti feature the sort of slashing attack that orchestras such as Il Giardino Armonico seem to bring to most everything. Indeed, the Concerto No. 7 in C, which is a throwback to the older Sonata di chiesa concerto grosso style, features a reserved, chaste approach that comes as a welcome contrast in the middle of the set, but also serves to further highlight the arch weirdness of the D minor concerto which follows (and which Podger herself likens to “being devoured by hungry tigers.”)

The players were recorded in the Church of the High Catholic Seminary in Goscikowo-Paradyz, Poland, a warm and cradling acoustic space. Some may object to the very slight “floor” of room noise present on the recording, but I feel that it provides a base to give the listener the feel of being in a real place, whereas studio recordings coming out of total silence can be artificial and disconcerting. The church has a warm ambiance, providing intimate reverberation suggesting a small-to-moderate size, an impression confirmed by the photograph of the church underlying the recording information at the end of the booklet. The technical information indicates that Jared Sacks has again recorded with Bruel and Kjaer and Schoeps microphones and used van Medevoort amplifiers, as he did on ‘Love and Lament’, previously featured by High Fidelity Review. Present here is the same warm sound and exquisite instrumental timbre. Significantly, though, the much more dense and complex writing of Vivaldi does not overload the aural picture. Inner lines remain clear, allowing the listener to hear layers of different activity. Most amazing of all was an effect I noticed when I first began listening to the discs. I seemed to be hearing a moderately high-pitched “shadow” of the violins in places. I wondered initially if it were an odd after-echo projected out by some asymmetrical corner of the church, but then I realized it wasn’t shadowing the violins, it was following the cellos and some of the varied basso continuo instruments. I finally realized that what I was “tuning in” to was the bell-like overtones of the low instruments, an elusive effect not often captured so vividly in recordings. Though easiest to notice via the multi-channel SACD content, this aura can be heard in all layers, even the plain CD version, though one might need headphones to clearly hear it there.

The CD layer of this hybrid disc is of course quite fine in its own right, yet squeezing the warm reverberation of the church acoustic into the glassy plain of regular CD sound hardens it to the point that in comparison to the stereo or multi-channel SACD layers, it sounds aggressive and unyielding. In CD form, the reverberation has nowhere to go, and ends up sounding comparatively clangorous (as many reverberant recordings have sounded on CD through the years). That noisy brittleness disappears on the stereo SACD layer, making the mere shift to DSD recording a vindication of the technology. But even that pales in comparison to the third option. The multi-channel SACD layer of this release (also recorded in DSD, of course) is the kind of material that could convert skeptics. In surround format, the reverberation of the church blossoms into an enveloping halo of sound by turns genial, pensive, or suspenseful, depending on the constantly changing moods of the fiery composer. Rather than diffusing the impact of the orchestra, the multi-channel layer clarifies the textures further. The reverberation floats around the listener, while the instruments are clearly focused across the front, with Podger just to the left of center. The front-to-rear balance of the recording is perfect. There are not any gimmicks of excessive spread of the soundstage to the sides, but just as importantly, there is no excessive back-bounce from behind, either. There is simply a divine opening of space that allows the music to soar.

Superior recording, handsome presentation, in-depth notes from producer Jonathan Freeman-Attwood and from Rachel Podger herself, and performances that remind us why we became addicted to music in the first place, make this a truly formidable release, deserving of all the many awards it will receive. Somewhere, that red-haired priest Vivaldi (“Il prete rosso,” they called him) must be cackling with joy to hear his invention catch fire once again.