Vivaldi's "Winter" Concerto in F Minor, from The Four Seasons
performed at Staunton Music Festival
August 21, 2015
Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia
Violin solo: Antti Tikkanen
Violins: Minna Pensola, June Huang
Viola: Gesa Kordes
Cello: Anna Steinhoff
Violone: Anthony Manzo
Theorbo: David Walker
Keyboards: Mark Shuldiner
Video by Stewart Searle
Violinist Antti Tikkanen is a versatile musician whose dynamic career spans solo, chamber, as well as baroque performance. Antti was born in Oulainen, Finland, and he began to study the violin at the age of seven. He later studied in the Kuhmo Violin School, the Sibelius Academy, and for a short period he also studied at the Lyon Conservatory. He has performed with numerous Finnish orchestras, including the Finnish Radio Symphony, Tapiola Sinfonietta and the Helsinki Philharmonic, and appears at music festivals across Europe. Antti is also a founding member of the internationally acclaimed String Quartet Meta4, which burst upon the scene taking first prize at the 2004 Shostakovich String Quartet Competition in Moscow.
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.
If we recall how Vivaldi built the “dozing” material in the slow movement of Autumn, we will appreciate the striking twist that occurs at the beginning of Winter. The same device—building an inverted 7th chord note by note (here F, G, D-flat, B-flat)— now creates a quite different effect by virtue of faster tempo and string tremolos. He also decides to emphasize the most pungent discord of all: F against G, the very first sounds we hear. Against this backdrop, a “horrid wind” bursts forth as three icy solo cadenzas, each higher than the last. Even the ensemble writing is more taut than ever, though a slight relaxation occurs with the beloved circle-of-fifths sequence for the “stamping of feet.” For all its anguished images, Winter includes perhaps Vivaldi’s most inspired and adored music.
Winter’s slow movement is more substantial than those that appear in the other concertos. And while pizzicato strings are used to mimic raindrops (this is Italy, after all, where January is more often wet than snowy), it is the easy grace of the solo violin melody that holds our attention. The respite from winter’s full force is brief, however. The ensuing finale starts mysteriously with wandering figures over a tonic pedal. Indeed, once supporting players finally join in, Vivaldi explicitly refers to the feeling of trepidation mentioned in the sonnet, “walking slowly and fearfully.” Winter takes on a spectral power as something from which we might hope to flee, like old age or death. But no matter where we hide—even in a brief reverie of warm summer winds—winter’s cold blasts find us. Like the mythical Aeolus, Vivaldi gathers and then unleashes all the winds in torrential final flourish. It is one of the most intense and moving conclusions to a work of music. As such, it is a fitting conclusion to The Four Seasons as a whole. For in these Seasons, Vivaldi has been at his most comprehensive, endeavoring to paint with tones and words. He has put his incredible musical imagination and technique into the service of a noble task: to capture the rich panoply of life in sounds.
(c) Jason Stell, 2015
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.
During the 2015 Baroque Inside/Out concert, festival musicians offered period instrument performances of the complete Four Seasons concertos by Vivaldi. The fiery "Summer" Concert in G Minor featured soloist Minna Pensola. In HD with accompanying program notes.
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