Harmonia Mundi's Rebel: Elements -- Vivaldi: Four Seasons combines two of the Baroque's biggest instrumental barnburners as performed by one of the top period instrument groups in Europe, Akademie für Alte Musik, Berlin, under the leadership of concertmasters Clemens-Maria Nuszbaumer and Georg Kallweit and featuring their star attraction, violinist Midori Seiler. Like Vivaldi's often derided as over-familiar Four Seasons, Jean-Féry Rebel's 1737 ballet Les Éléments does not want for good recordings, but it is nowhere near as famous as the Vivaldi; this is the first time the two have been combined on a recording, and these pieces are quite compatible given their shared, programmatic purposes. Inasmuch as the Akademie für Alte Musik, Berlin is concerned, these recordings reflect a staged performance of the two works as prepared for a festival in Italy in the fall of 2009 in collaboration with choreographer Juan Kruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola. Some might find that the staging of instrumental -- or at least non-dramatic -- classics borders on the faddish. Nevertheless, one of the best recordings ever made of Bach's B minor Mass -- that led by Thomas Hengelbrock for DHM in 1997 -- was based on a similar instance where the work was presented as a show rather than a "straight" public performance of Bach's never-intended-as-liturgical choral masterpiece.
For a musical text like Les Éléments, of which the content is something of a matter of debate given the incomplete form in which it has come down to us, Akademie für Alte Musik, Berlin's interpretation is remarkably fluid and evolutionary in keeping with Rebel's intentions of moving from Chaos through Creation. The performance evolves in a very patient and low-key way, from the crashing seven-note tone cluster that opens the work to the spring-like evocation of its final dances, and one can feel the sense of unfolding even down to the relative volume of the piece as it progresses through its various movements. This might not instantly become everyone's favorite recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, as it is meant to go with a performance and is tailored to fit to that; those familiar with the usual delivery of these four concerti might find this recording somewhat enigmatic and lacking in the usual fireworks. Nevertheless, it is an altogether original, daring, and completely valid reinterpretation of the piece; restrained, mysterious, and dramatically compelled, employing vibrant and occasionally violent contrasts. Seiler's interpretation of the solo violin in part is completely her own; in places where others linger, Seiler stabs through the passage like Hamlet stabbing Polonius through the curtain, whereas in passages that some violinists might perform on autopilot, Seiler finds a spot to indulge in an expressive figure or an ornament wholly unfamiliar, even to the seasoned Four Seasons listener.
Listeners well-attuned to the established story arc of the Four Seasons may well dismiss this as perverse; difference for the sake of being different. Perhaps one might not want to make this the only version of the Four Seasons to own. Nevertheless, enjoying the album as a whole -- both the Rebel and Vivaldi taken together -- is the recommended option; it is very fast moving and interesting in addition to being edgy and assertively exceptional. The DVD of Akademie für Alte Musik, Berlin's performance with Esnaola would probably be the best way to experience this radical and enterprising concept; nevertheless, Harmonia Mundi's CD is a riveting and revelatory experience that commends itself to listeners welcoming a second opinion on the Four Seasons and as an introduction to Les Éléments, a work that easily could withstand exposure beyond those expert in Baroque literature.