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Vivaldi's Four Seasons: Live from the Barbican

Rachel Podger in front of the Barbican as it emits radio broadcast signals

Harriet Smith takes us through tonight’s programme of Italian treasures.

Today we get to experience arguably the best-known set of violin concertos ever written – The Four Seasons – alongside a composer whose music has almost entirely vanished from sight. 

The life of the Italian composer Maria Grimani is so wreathed in mystery that we don’t even know for certain when she died. She appears to have been born into a noble Venetian family and what we do know is that she spent periods of time in Vienna, where she was active during the reign of Charles VI and was one of the last of a series of female oratorio composers at the imperial court. Strikingly she was first-ever woman to have an opera produced there: Pallade e Marte was unveiled at the Vienna court theatre in celebration of the emperor’s saint’s day on 4 November 1713.

Maria Grimani’s gifts, though, are self-evident even from the short sinfonia (overture) that opens Pallade e Marte. It ranges from a bustlingly upbeat opening section, strings supported by busy harpsichord continuo, to a slower-moving section full of sighing phrases and juicily biting harmonies. This in turn gives way to a more optimistic theme, underpinned by lilting rhythms that end the sinfonia in a mood of good humour. 

Arcangelo Corelli was a generation older than Grimani and details of his earlier life are somewhat vague. He made his mark in Rome, however, where he’d moved by 1675. He was an outstanding violinist and made major developments in the genres of the concerto and the sonata. His influence is out of all proportion to the small number of works left to posterity.

The sheer quality of his composing shows through wonderfully in the 12 Concerti grossi, Op 6, of which we’ll hear the first two pieces. (A concerto grosso is a work that features a group of instrumentalists who function as soloists.)

The brief opening movement of the first concerto sets off with all due solemnity before a bustling second one that alternates busyness with dramatic silences. The third has a stately gait, while the fourth enjoys irrepressibly high spirits, though underneath the energy we can still detect the courtly gait of the previous movement. A gently sighing Largo brings us into a minor key, with Corelli showing his genius for creating music from the simplest of building blocks. Shadows are banished in the faster-moving sixth movement, which reveals itself to be a brief but perfectly formed fugue. The Concerto grosso closes with a dancing Allegro. 

The opening movement of the F major Concerto grosso is emotionally wide-ranging, from the ceremonial to a melting dip into the minor. The confident demeanour of the fugal Allegro that follows is shattered by a slow third movement, in which Corelli pulls us into the depths of despair. As the speed becomes more flowing the underlying harmonies remind us that there is no respite from the sadness, though this is ultimately overcome by an elegantly dancing final Allegro. 

At the other end of the scale from Corelli’s small legacy is that left by Antonio Vivaldi, whose sheer productivity has sometimes counted against him. There’s no question that he took violin playing to a new level and the pupils of the Venetian Ospedale della Pietà, where Vivaldi spent most of his working life, were fortunate indeed. As a concerto composer he built on the legacy of figures such as Corelli and in turn influenced Tartini, J S Bach and Telemann. 

When a work is as famous as Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, it’s easy to take for granted its radical experimentalism. The accompanying sonnets, which Vivaldi had printed alongside the music, and which will be displayed as captions tonight, make explicit the images conjured in the concertos (the author is unknown but may be Vivaldi himself). 

Each concerto conjures a different world and the range of moods and musical effects are so striking it seems impossible that the forces – solo violin, strings and continuo – are so modest. Listen out, for example, for the barking dog (the viola in the middle movement of ‘Spring’), or, in the first movement of ‘Summer’, the calls of the cuckoo, turtledove and goldfinch, while in the same concerto’s slow movement the buzzing gnats and flies disturb the heat of the day, the sense of ennui banished by a violent storm that Vivaldi whips up for the work’s finale. ‘Autumn’ finds raucous peasants partying hard in the opening movement, while their alcoholic stupor is conjured with daring harmonic colours in the slow movement, the last movement bringing things back to life with a vigorous hunt. ‘Winter’ again inspires from Vivaldi music of extraordinary colouristic imagination, from the pre-Minimalismtic chugging of the first movement (depicting the savagery of the cold), via the warm glow of the slow movement, to a finale which is introduced by an improvisatory-sounding solo violin before a thrilling evocation of wild storms viewed from the comfort of indoors. 

© Harriet Smith

Programme and Performers

Vivaldi's Four Seasons sonnets

Artist biographies