Hearing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for the First Time, Again

On Saturday, March 16, 2013, the New Trinity Baroque Orchestra performed an all-Vivaldi string concerto concert at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta.

First up was all four concertos in Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. This performance was astonishingly good. I used the word “stupefying” to describe it to a friend. The audience was ecstatic — embarrassingly over-enthusiastic— and cheered riotously at the end of each of the four concertos.

As good as it was, I don’t intend to write a review of the performance, but more to write the thoughts that it evoked about why I love Baroque music in historically-informed performance.

All of us who like this music have heard old music from bygone eras played on modern instruments by a large orchestra of players focusing on modern performance techniques. That’s certainly how I heard Vivaldi’s Four Seasons the first several times I heard it. New Trinity Baroque’s performance was the first time I had heard all four Seasons concertos performed in the same program by an early music chamber orchestra, and it was a revelation. It was truly like hearing it for the first time, as if all the previous recordings or performances I had heard merely hinted at what the music was all about. The husband of a friend of mine in the audience said, “That’s the first time I’ve heard the Four Seasons really interpreted, as opposed to just played.” This experience is common to all early music chamber groups if they are any good.

It’s quite amazing that New Trinity’s small chamber ensemble — only three violins, one viola, one cello, one bass, harpsichord and chittarone, and of course with no amplification of any sort, in a small church, in front of an audience of 90 people could, well, rock that hard. Hey, I grew up on hard rock music and Rolling Stone magazine. I made a colleague chuckle when I described this performance of New Trinity’s by saying “the entire ensemble just killed.” That’s the sort of language most in my generation would reserve for the stand-up comedy of Eddie Murphy or a rock concert by Prince. But I must be honest in saying that from my point of view, that’s the best way I can explain a concert of classical music played that effectively. I went on to describe this New Trinity Baroque concert by saying, “stupefying virtuosity, carefully rehearsed and meticulously executed, yet full of emotion and passion.”

One of the things that New Trinity Baroque reminded me of is that Vivaldi wrote some astonishingly evocative programmatic music, or tone poems, with The Four Seasons. Symphonie Phantastique? La Mer? Forget about it. Maybe Scheherazade is in Vivaldi’s league.

Most of the effects of what Vivaldi created, in my opinion, get lost when you hear them played by a “modern” orchestra. Here is why.

Early music takes some getting used to, for an audience comfortable with “modern” orchestras that play modern instruments. The differences are particularly stark with the string instruments.

The group I work with, the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra, some years ago suffered a bad review of an otherwise okay concert written by an inexperienced, practically clueless music reviewer. She kept using the word “sour” to describe the strings’ sound, and implied that the instruments were never in tune anywhere in the concert. What she didn’t realize was that the instruments were perfectly in tune, and so was the music they were playing: the problem is that she was used to hearing a “modern” string orchestra where the players all use modern steel-stringed instruments and use a great deal of vibrato on all the notes they play. That vibrato, the rapid, small fluctuations in pitch around each central note, which is a characteristic of string playing in the last 125 years, makes all the pitches and intervals “blurry”, and smooths out and sweetens the sound. But this is not the sound that Bach and Vivaldi had at their disposal, so they didn’t write music for these kinds of timbres.

When Baroque music specialists play strings, it is on instruments with strings of sheep gut, not steel, and they use very little if any vibrato. They orient the intonation of the pitches and intervals in their playing decisively toward pure intervals, what we call meantone tuning, or just intonation, and not to the one-size-fits-all compromises of equal-tempered tuning used by the modern piano and guitar. In the modern era’s equal-tempered tuning, the intervals of major and minor thirds in a chord are wide of the mark and cause audible “beating” of clashing overtones. They are all quite out-of-tune compared to the pure intervals you can achieve on the fingerboard of the violin, viola, cello and bass, and in the human voice. The player with “modern” technique adds a generous dollop of vibrato to blur the distinctions in intervals even more.

With a Baroque string ensemble, all the intervals are stacked up purely in tune, with little or no vibrato to make anything drift or wobble. And sheep-gut strings, when bowed, create a different timbre, a different combination of overtones than steel strings do. Some people describe the timbre of a Baroque string ensemble as “pungent”, though I don’t like that characterization. I’ve heard one vocal musician who was not accustomed to early music tell me that singing in her choir with a Baroque orchestra accompanying them actually gave her a slight headache, because she was not yet accustomed to the stark, pure sonorities.

With The Four Seasons, each movement is accompanied by a sonnet that explains what Vivaldi is trying to convey. I had forgotten how heavy and violent the “Summer” concerto is supposed to be. Vivaldi tells us it’s about a farmer watching a heavy thunderstorm erupt into a hailstorm. Standing, pelted by hailstones, he watches as it ruins his wheat crop. New Trinity Baroque pelted out a fusillade of sharp sounds that, while perfectly consonant and tonal and measured, just as Vivaldi composed it, would startle the most jaded hard-rock music fan right out of their seat. Music doesn’t have to reach decibel levels that would damage your hearing in order to make all your nerve-endings fire. It just has to be played right.

Similarly, Vivaldi write passages in the “Winter” concerto that are absolutely sharp, spiky, and spine-tingling. You can feel the frost creeping over your windowpanes while you shudder in the cold. In the terraced crescendos of the opening of the first movement, pure, sharp intervals stack up one on top of the other, creating layers of palpable tension hanging in the air, until the lead violin bursts out with peals of cold sonic energy.

When modern-style string players try to interpret this on modern instruments, it can sound too smooth and blurry, too sweet. A small ensemble of gut-stringed instruments cannot “cut through the mix” and project like modern-style steel-stringed instruments; yet in Vivaldi’s setting, they can be far more cutting and clear and effective and energized than a much larger ensemble of modern instruments swathed in vibrato. You just have to experience it to appreciate the difference.

Now of course an effective performance of Baroque music has a lot more to it than just intervals and intonation. There are many expressive and interpretive techniques that skilled musicians bring to the task of revitalizing this music in what they call the historically-informed performance style. Any musician who plays this music will tell you that they are in the middle of a lifetime of learning to play expressively in more ways than I can convey in one essay. New Trinity Baroque’s performance this time around reminded me of one salient aspect of historical performance. There are many more.

I’m not implying that Baroque music and its resources are inherently superior or more effective in musical expression than a modern symphony orchestra playing music from the late 19th or 20th centuries. Far from it: music that more recent composers wrote to make use of the resources of more recent orchestras works most effectively when played by the same sort of orchestra playing the same sort of instruments that the composer wrote it for. So from Mahler to Philip Glass, you want a modern symphony orchestra. Those musicians wrote for those timbres and sonorities, and for instruments that could handle all those key modulations and remote tonalities and complex chordal dissonance. But for Bach and Vivaldi and Telemann, and even Mozart, you are missing a lot if you fail to experience them in meantone tuning played on instruments like those played in those peculiar times, played by musicians who study how to try to get back to the composers’ original intent.

As I’ve often said, no matter what kind of music I’m listening to — and if you know me you know that I’m equally passionate about rock, jazz, and all forms of contemporary commercial music as I am about classical music — you know that I like to get back to the roots of whatever music I’m presented with. When I heard the amazingly daring bebop jazz improvisations on the “standards”, I wanted to know where those tunes came from, and that’s when I went back toward the direction of the earliest decades of Broadway and writers like Irving Berlin. Before that, I had heard Walter Carlos’ Switched-On Bach in my early teens, more than ten years after it was recorded and released, and that is when I woke up to Baroque music. I heard these wonderful interpretations on the Moog synthesizer, and they excited me for what they were. But it set me on a journey to learn about the source of that music, its roots — and that led me to early music and historically-informed performance.

I feel that I can appreciate any style of music and any group of musicians as long as they are intelligent and skilled, and earnestly understand and live and breathe the music they play at its most basic level of interpretation. This is why I love groups like the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra and New Trinity Baroque, and I feel so privileged to have them perform right in my home town.