Antonio Lucio Vivaldi’s music is timeless. Performed within the orchestral world, period films, and popular culture today, his works and melodies are recognizable, even to a movie crowd. Yet his work was often discredited in his lifetime because he was prolific. Composers and critics alike believed that Vivaldi’s sheer quantity of production outweighed his quality. Vivaldi and his music, however, have endured, and among his vast array of compositions, his concerti for solo instruments number past 500. After the violin, one of the largest collections of pieces he wrote was for the cello.
Even though Baroque composers published hundreds of cello sonatas from the late seventeenth to mid eighteenth centuries, Vivaldi did not find it economical to publish cello music in the 1710s and 1720s. It seems there were not enough soloists or patrons to support the effort. After his death, by the 1740s, however, solo performances began to rise. French publisher Le Clerc featured twenty-six cello composers in his music catalogs in that decade.
By most accounts, Vivaldi published twenty-eight to twenty-nine cello concertos and ten cello sonatas, one of which was permanently lost. These numbers don’t even reflect the select cello solos in his orchestral works nor chamber music such as a cello duet, violin and cello duet, and pieces for mixed trios and quartets. His experimentation and creativity were unceasing.
To fully appreciate the few cellists who have recorded Vivaldi’s works, I would begin with a tutorial from period cellist Bill Skeen of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale of San Francisco. He explains how his 1680 cello, complete with five sheepgut strings, boasts a greater bass range because of how it is crafted:
Though audio recordings of Vivaldi cello music abound, surprisingly few artists are filmed performing the solo pieces. Vivaldi’s cello duet, however, happens to be a common performance piece. It is a delight to watch and to listen. With an impressive tempo, Henri Demarquette and Claire-Lise Démettre perform the Vivaldi Double Cello Concerto in G minor, RV 531, accompanied by the Orchestre de Chambre de la Nouvelle Europe.
Only a handful of artists have recorded most or all of Vivaldi’s works for cello, among them Ofra Harnoy and Yo-Yo Ma. Ms. Harnoy’s 1988 and 1989 RCA albums capture all the solo works, predating Mr. Ma’s recordings of 2004 with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. Ms. Harnoy performs the Concerto in G minor, RV, 417, with the Toronto Chamber Orchestra, which features lively Allegros as beginning and endcaps. Mr. Ma’s album features arrangements and rewritten parts, not quite the purist approach Baroque assembles aim for, but he does present a unique sound. At only two minutes, this recording of “Così sugl’ occhi miei” from La fida ninfa, RV 714, allows us to hear Mr. Ma play his personal Baroque cello accompanied by harpsichord then followed by a chamber arrangement of “La gloria del mio sangue” from Giustino, RV 717.
Vivaldi’s work with cello, all strings in fact, would be incomplete without mention of The Four Seasons, composed in 1723. These four violin concertos are programmatic or descriptive concertos, which means that each one begins with a sonnet Vivaldi himself wrote describing each season of the year. Each poem is broken up into sections, labelled by letters with each section corresponding to a particular part of each concerto. But more importantly, the nuance of each season is clearly felt. I love how each season presents more than one movement just as our natural seasons have unique rhythms. You truly can hear the emerging birdsong of spring and feel the languidity of summer contrasted with oncoming storms.
An absolutely beautiful and energetic performance features violinist Janine Jansen. She shines in her lead role as violinist and conductor with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, alongside the precise and passionate principal cellist, Kaori Yamagami.
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The featured image is “Frederick, Prince of Wales, and his Sisters” (1733) by Phillipe Mercier (1689-1760), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.