Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer's 2000 release Eight Seasons is a conceptual masterwork. Kremer, long known for his skillful interpretations of Astor Piazzolla's Argentinean tangos, had the brilliant idea of matching four of the Latin master's tone poems of the seasons in his native Buenos Aires with Antonio Vivaldi's conceptually similar masterpiece "The Four Seasons," alternating seasons between the two works. Besides the conceptual perfection of the idea, the performances are exquisite. Kremer and his conservatory orchestra, the Kremerata Baltica, do a particularly masterful job with the Vivaldi, avoiding the ornate bloat that affects so many recordings of this work. Their performances are brisk and to-the-point, with bright tempos that add a vitality not often found in this rather shopworn old standard. As always, Kremer's solos in the Piazzolla works are absolutely superb, with the dramatic flourishes of the massed string section providing startling counterpoint, especially on the breathtaking "Verano Porteno". Eight Seasons is a truly remarkable work by an underrated performer.
Violinist James Ehnes has firmly established himself as a master of the modern repertoire and to a lesser extent, the Romantic, so his album of Antonio Vivaldi's perennial violin concertos, The Four Seasons, Giuseppe Tartini's "Devil's Trill" Sonata, and Jean-Marie Leclair's "Tambourin" Sonata is an unexpected detour into the Baroque. The fame and popularity of these pieces guarantees Ehnes an audience, and he, like everyone else, shouldn't be criticized for recording them, though his choice of the modern Sydney Symphony Orchestra for the Vivaldi, and Fritz Kreisler's arrangement of the Tartini for violin and piano, suggests that he isn't really trying to compete with most contemporary recordings, least of all the various period-style releases.
If anyone has earned the right to mess around with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons it is Nigel Kennedy, the violin world’s Marmite violinist. Remember how fresh he made this music sound on his recording of a quarter-century ago? This latest version offers a ferment of all he’s played since – concertos, jazz, Jimi Hendrix. It’s affectionate and irreverent in equal measure, and Kennedy and his Orchestra of Life never sound less than riveting. Pretty much all Vivaldi’s notes are there; around, above and in between them come interjections, overlays and linking passages involving guest musicians from jazz and rock: Orphy Robinson, Damon Reece, Z-Star and others. Spring is welcomed in by a distant-sounding intro on an electric-guitar. Summer’s storms bring forth bursts of crazily sampled static. Autumn tears off at a cracking pace, but with a jazz trumpet sauntering lazily over the top. It all sounds like a colossal jam session from the inside of a Botticelli painting.
Director and violinist Amandine Beyer acknowledges in her booklet notes for this disc that the world may not seem to need another recording of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, but then she tops the bar she has set up by delivering an entirely distinctive reading of the work. Her version, with the Italian historical-instrument group Gli Incogniti (who are not quite as unknown as all that), is as strikingly revisionist as the various turbo-powered, operatic Vivaldi recordings that began coming out of Italy in the 1990s, but it is different in flavor. In her own words, Beyer seeks "lightweight forces and freedom of phrasing." The group is small, with microphones put down right in the middle, and you hear lots of internal lines and interplay rather than contrast between orchestra and soloist.
This EMI release of The Four Seasons gives violinist Sarah Chang top billing (as would be expected) and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra a smaller, less significant listing. As far as the quality of performance goes, however, Orpheus should absolutely be considered the star of this recording with Chang getting the footnote instead. This is simply not the case; from the ridiculously posed glamour photos filling the liner notes to the balance of the performance itself, this album is all about Chang. The most fulfilling aspects are the orchestral tuttis. Orpheus is truly at its best here, playing with as much energy and passion as the much ballyhooed recording with the Venice Baroque Orchestra.