Ultimate Vivaldi: The Essential Masterpieces [Box Set]

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The task of picking "essential masterpieces" for a big-box collection like this is essentially futile. Sure, one could complain that restricting the vocal music to the two Gloria settings distorts Vivaldi's output severely, but any selection would cause complaints -- and the compilers could point out that it was instrumental concertos that made Vivaldi popular and instrumental concertos on which his popularity rests. Furthermore, the recordings featured here, mostly by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, are, in many cases, those that turned Vivaldi into an industry -- they were the backbone of programming on NPR, the BBC, and their counterparts in other countries for years. The lovely guitar-concerto recordings by the Romeros on disc four (mostly transcriptions from mandolin concertos) are still standards, and the broad performances of the two Glorias on disc five are attractive although dated in their use of Gian Francesco Malipiero's rather Mahlerian additions to the original score. (The performance of the Gloria in D major, RV 588, is by singers and orchestra, not for four guitars as is indicated in the track list.) The major weakness of this set lies not in the selection, which might serve as a reasonable car-stereo catchall for casual listening. The problem is the centerpiece, the performance of the Four Seasons on the opening disc, with Salvatore Accardo on violin, apparently leading I Solisti di Napoli. These were exactly the sorts of performances the clean English readings of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields was trying to avoid, with oddly legato orchestral lines and a bizarre harpsichord continuo that adds distracting ornamental scales at the ends of many phrases. Despite the draw of Accardo's name, the performance was a poor choice for the set; the crisp lyricism that drew so many people to Vivaldi is just not on display here. There's plenty of worthwhile music on these five discs, but an "essential masterpieces" Vivaldi set with a subpar Four Seasons is anything but essential.

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