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Concerto for Four Violins in B minor, RV 580, op. 3, no. 10

September 26, 2021: James Thompson, violin; Oliver Neubauer, violin; Clara Neubauer, violin; Jeanelle Brierley, violin; Paul Neubauer, viola; Isabella Bignasca, viola; Nicholas Canellakis, cello; Sihao He, cello; Joel Noyes, cello; David J. Grossman, bass; Paolo Bordignon, harpsichord

If one were to compose a concerto every month for thirty-five years, one would still not match Vivaldi’s feat. Of his close to 500 concertos, more than 230 were written for solo violin and strings, some 120 for a variety of other solo instruments with string accompaniment, many for more than one soloist, and approximately 60 for string orchestra without solo instrument known as ripieno concertos. And, he managed to compose solo and trio sonatas, operas, oratorios, masses, motets, and cantatas in addition to performing, teaching, and traveling. Vivaldi’s extraordinary mastery of instrumental forms and orchestration influenced generations of composers.

Vivaldi was an accomplished violinist himself, having studied with his father, a violinist at the famous St. Mark’s cathedral in Venice. Vivaldi trained for the priesthood, taking his Holy Orders in 1703, the same year he became maestro di violino at the Pio Ospedale Pietà, an orphanage and renowned conservatory for girls in Venice. Though his later activities as a composer and impresario occasioned much travel, Vivaldi retained his association with the Pietà throughout his life and many of his instrumental works were designed for his students there.

About 1711 the Amsterdam firm of Estienne Roger issued Vivaldi’s first published set of concertos, L’estro armonico (“harmonic caprice”), op. 3, one of the most influential collections of instrumental music of the eighteenth century. The twelve concertos were composed over a period of years, probably for the Pio Ospedale Pietà. L’estro armonico was and still is prized for its wealth of originality in regard to style, form, orchestration, and concentrated rhythmic designs. Bach was among the many who were enthralled by the collection, transcribing six of the concertos for his own use and imitating Vivaldi’s rather flexible forms in his own concertos.

Vivaldi established the three-movement norm for concertos. He typically cast his first and last movements in ritornello form, in which periodic returns of thematic material alternate with contrasting episodes. Ritornello elements are present in the present Concerto’s first movement, but the ritornello itself is subordinate to the domination of the four soloists. Instead of opening with a typical ritornello for the full ensemble, Vivaldi introduces the major motives in two of the solo violins. The texture of the four solo parts is constantly varied, but the four soloists are never featured simultaneously; most often they play singly or in pairs.

The slow movement follows the multisection style of previous composers such as Corelli. The sections consist of a Largo featuring dotted rhythms, a Larghetto made up entirely of elaborative repeated figures—a different figure in each part—and an Adagio probably meant for a cadenza-like elaboration. The dancelike finale in 6/8 meter follows a much more clear-cut ritornello form. The first solo violin predominates, but each soloist is given an opportunity to shine.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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