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Flute Concerto in D, RV428, (The Goldfinch)

November 4, 2018: Yoobin Son, solo flute; Sheryl Staples, violin; Qian-Qian Li, violin; Cynthia Phelps, viola; Eileen Moon, cello; Tim Cobb, bass; Alessio Bax, harpsichord

If one were to compose a concerto a month every year for thirty-five years, one would still not match Vivaldi’s feat. He composed close to 500 concertos, including numerous solo concertos and many for different numbers of soloists in a variety of combinations. Of these, twelve complete concertos survive for solo flute—many reworked from other versions—and ten as chamber concertos that include flute. In addition he managed to compose solo and trio sonatas, operas, oratorios, masses, motets, and cantatas, all the while maintaining a heavy schedule of performing, teaching, and traveling.

Vivaldi’s extraordinary mastery of instrumental forms and orchestration influenced generations of composers. To him goes the credit for establishing 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.

Dating proves difficult with many of Vivaldi’s compositions, but most of his concertos were written for the Ospedale della Pietà, the famous orphanage and music school for girls in Venice. He served as maestro di violino there beginning in 1703 and remained associated with the institution in some capacity for the rest of his life. The present Flute Concerto was published in 1728 in a set of six as Opus 10—the first collection of flute concertos published in Italy. As with most of its companions, Vivaldi adapted it from an earlier version.

At several times in his career Vivaldi showed great interest in pictorial composing, most famously in the four Violin Concertos known as “The Four Seasons.” In the present Flute Concerto, which he reworked from an earlier version for chamber ensemble, he focused on the depiction of bird song—not in the type of exact rendering Messiaen would later employ, but in a charming, stylized manner. The Concerto is nicknamed “Il gardinello”—alternately translated as goldfinch, green finch, or bull finch—for its depiction of the finch in raucous and more lyrical moods, with abundant trills, repeated notes, and arpeggios.

After the opening ritornello, striking for its forceful unison pattern, the solo flute gives a wonderful free bird-song impression. In other solo passages the flute is joined by solo violin, which also takes an avian role. Certain conventional musical patterns may be superimposed, but the overall effect is delightfully picturesque.

The lovely slow movement avoids birdlike representations in favor of a general pastoral atmosphere, with the flute lilting a tender melody in Siciliano style. In contrast to the outer movements, the accompaniment is reduced to continuo alone (keyboard with supporting bass instruments).

In between the decisive descending scales in the third-movement ritornello, beguiling pairings of flute and violin again suggest our feathered friends. The solo passages offer more twitterings, some again pairing flute with violin—or two violins—and some pitting the flute alone against the entire ensemble.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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