The world of Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was marked by dramatic innovation.
In the Italian city of Cremona, just over a hundred miles from Vivaldi’s native Venice, instrument builders such as Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri were elevating the violin, tonally, to previously unimaginable heights. At the same time, Vivaldi, perhaps the world’s first rock star, captivated listeners with such blazing violinistic virtuosity that one witness described his playing as “terrifying.” Through techniques such as bariolage, an alternation of notes on adjacent strings with contrasting timbres, a single violin, in Vivaldi’s hands, could create the magical sensation of multiple voices and chordal harmony.
An ordained Catholic priest with striking red hair, Vivaldi was given dispensation from his clerical duties after complaining of a “tightness in the chest” while performing a mass. As a result of this apparent asthma, he was able to focus, full time, on music. In addition to finding work as an opera composer and impresario, he was employed as a teacher at the Ospedale della Pietà, a convent and music school for orphaned girls. Vivaldi composed hundreds of concerti, most of which were first performed by the students of the elite school.
One such piece was the Concerto No. 10 in B minor for Four Violins, Cello, and Strings, RV 580. The work is part of a collection of twelve concerti, published in Amsterdam in 1711 under the title, L’estro armonico (“The Harmonic Inspiration”). According to the musicologist, Michael Talbot, it is “perhaps the most influential collection of instrumental music to appear during the whole of the eighteenth century.” L’estro armonico circulated widely throughout Europe and came to the attention of J.S. Bach, who arranged the Concerto No. 10 for four harpsichords (BWV 1065).
Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico follows the model of the Baroque concerto grosso, in which the full ensemble (the ripieno) is set in contrast with an intimate group of solo voices. Within this formula, Vivaldi reinforced the “fast-slow-fast” movement structure, which would set the stage for the traditional concerto. Additionally, he pioneered the ritornello (or “return”), a recurring interlude which alternates with adventurous solo episodes.
This recording, released in 2022, features harpsichordist Rinaldo Alessandrini and the early music ensemble, Concerto Italiano. The soloists are Boris Begelman, Elisa Citterio, Andrea Rognoni, and Stefano Barneschi.
- Vivaldi: L’estro armonico. Concerto No. 10 for 4 Violins in B Minor, Op. 3, RV 580, Rinaldo Alessandrini, Concerto Italiano, Boris Begelman, Elisa Citterio, Andrea Rognoni, Stefano Barneschi Presto Music
Featured Image: a Venice canal