Vivaldi's "Summer" Concerto in G Minor, from The Four Seasons
performed at Staunton Music Festival
August 21, 2015
Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia
Violin solo: Minna Pensola
Violins: Antti Tikkanen, Fiona Hughes
Viola: Gesa Kordes
Cello: Anna Steinhoff
Violone: Anthony Manzo
Theorbo: David Walker
Keyboards: Mark Shuldiner
Video by Stewart Searle
Minna Pensola performs as a chamber musician, soloist and leader. She is a founding member of Meta4 string quartet which is the first prize winner of the Dimitri Shostakovich String Quartet Competition (Moscow 2004) and the Joseph Haydn Chamber Music Competition (Vienna 2007). She is also a co-founder of The Punavuori Chamber concert series, and runs a club for classical music in her home town Helsinki. She acted as an artistic director for the Sysmä Summer Sounds Festival in Finland years 2006-2012. Minna Pensola teaches violin at the Sibelius Academy and is tutor at the European Chamber Music Academy (ECMA). Minna Pensola plays a Carlo Bergonzi violin (1732) kindly on loan from Signe ja Ane Gyllenberg Foundation.
About the Music
Almost three centuries ago, Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) composed his most famous works and the most significant examples of Baroque program music. The Four Seasons are the opening works in Opus 8, a set of concertos published in 1725. That set actually contains twelve violin concertos, but the brilliance and popularity of the first four have generally obscured the remaining works. Learning about Baroque music, there is simply no getting around The Four Seasons. They epitomize various aspects of Vivaldi’s mature concerto style, but they also were influential in celebrating the connections between program music and an accompanying narrative. Vivaldi chose to publish each concerto with a corresponding sonnet. Scholars believe Vivaldi himself penned these poems, though their authorship remains in doubt. We do know that, in his sketches, Vivaldi correlated passages from the sonnets to specific themes in the music.
The musical year begins with Spring and continues around the cycle. Certain features are held constant as we make this journey, including the three-movement, fast-slow-fast arrangement that Vivaldi’s generation bequeathed to subsequent composers. Two are in major, two in minor. Two feature violin writing that is elegant and refined; the other two are virtuosic and feverish—even in the icy chill of Winter. What draws us to this music is certainly its animation and absolutely brilliant, idiomatic violin writing. It hardly needs pointing out that Vivaldi himself was one of the greatest violinists of the day. His improvisations, as entr’acte diversions in the theater, were legendary. And it was his technical skill, above all else, that attracted so many parents to seek a spot for their daughters in the Pieta—originally a home for foundlings.
Sound effects range from broadly evocative (thunder and winds) to more directly mimetic (bird calls, dog barks). But rather than creating just a sequence of effects, Vivaldi conveys a sense of narrative progression by introducing the accompanying sonnets. There is an irony at work here. On one hand, Vivaldi so effectively captures moments from the sonnets in sound, that it would seem redundant to offer any kind of description in words. And yet musical pictorialism is never a one-to-one correspondence; rapid repeated notes, for instance, do not always signify winds, let alone something so precise as the North Wind. So there is a place for commentary, and the accompanying sonnets make that task both easier and more justifiable.
The second concerto, Summer, starts out where many of us end up around this time of year: “exhausted by the heat,” to quote the sonnet. In the slow introduction, Vivaldi employs falling lines and chromatically lowered tones (such as A-flat in place of the expected A-natural) to evoke drooping energy levels. What an effective foil for the much-too-vigorous cuckoo in solo violin that intrudes upon our impending slumber. Our next visitor is the turtledove, whose doleful cry also touches on the unexpected A-flat sitting a semitone above G. After twittering finches have their say, things get a bit more agitated as the winds pick up. Clearly a storm is in the offing. The shepherd feels it, too, and his fears elicit an operatic aria in solo violin. The sonnet suggests that such fears are symbolic of the boy’s trepidation about his future, generally speaking. Vivaldi paints the mood with a traditional lament bass progression, in which the harmonic foundation falls stepwise through the interval of a fourth.
A level of unease continues into the Adagio. Now, despite a tender melody in the solo violin, flies and wasps compete for our attention with periodic thunder. The whole movement lasts just two minutes. Before we know it, the tempest is raining down upon us (the Finale). This Finale is one of Vivaldi’s very best, for it merges the two elements that have made his reputation in the concerto world: dazzling, idiomatic violin writing and significant use of harmonic sequence.
(c) Jason Stell, 2015
Along with festival musicians, violinist Antti Tikkanen delivered a powerful and poised rendition of Vivaldi's "Winter" Concerto in F Minor from the Four Seasons. Recorded in HD at the live performance in August 2015, the video includes accompanying program notes.
Finnish violinists Antti Tikkanen and Minna Pensola have been familiar and beloved faces at Staunton Music Festival since 2013. Often arriving here with daughters in tow, the couple take a moment during the pandemic shutdown to say hello from home in Helsinki.
Noted music historian Tim Carter (UNC-Chapel Hill) provides a broad perspective from which to consider Vivaldi's ever-popular Four Seasons concertos. He is joined by Finnish violinists Minna Pensola and Antti Tikkanen, sharing impressions and recollections of their Four Seasons performances from SMF 2015.
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