Eight Seasons

CD copies of Antonio Vivaldi's 'Quattro Stagioni' and Philip Glass's 'American Four Seasons'.

Antonio Vivaldi’s quartet of violin concertos Le Quattro Stagioni, first published in 1725, must be among the most recognisable and frequently performed in the ‘classical’ repertoire. I became properly aware of them during the ’80s, when they seemed to be much in vogue – from the 1981 movie The Four Seasons, whose soundtrack prominently features them, to Nigel Kennedy’s hugely successful 1989 recording. Although I liked the music well enough, I didn’t obtain it on disc until the early ’00s, when I bought Gidon Kremer’s version, on a CD where where Vivaldi’s pieces alternated with Astor Piazzolla’s Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas. Much as I admired the playing by Kremer and his band I didn’t think the juxtaposition of the two dissimilar sets of pieces worked especially well. The cool emotional temperature throughout, moreover, made all the seasons feel at least a little wintry.

I’ve heard the music often. but not too often – I can and do still enjoy it. Lately I picked up a second-hand CD copy of a 1991 performance of Le Stagione by Fabio Biondi and his ensemble Europa Galante. This is a warm-toned ‘historically-informed’ performance that I find more to my taste. Europa Galante here are twelve strong: eleven string players led by Biondi, plus Rinaldo Alessandrini on harpsichord. There’s also some filler, in the shape of two further brief Vivaldi concerti. Biondi recorded the Seasons again in 2000, reputedly in a more flamboyant style. On YouTube one can see Europa Galante playing the Seasons live in 2003.

In the meantime I’d aquired another set of musical seasons, namely Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto No. 2 aka the American Four Seasons. This is a single composition with four movements each of which is prefaced by a short piece for solo violin. The movements have no titles, with Glass leaving it up to the listener as to which relates to each season. To my ears they seem to follow the same order as Vivaldi’s, beginning with Spring. The slow second movement puts me more in mind of the langour of summer than anything else. This is Glass in straighforward crowd-pleasing mode – it certainly pleases me. It’s performed on this 2020 Naxos release by the Berner Kammerorkester conducted by Philippe Bach, with Piotr Plawner the lead soloist. The band is twice the size of Biondi’s, with twenty-three players, all of them on strings aside from a single keyboardist, who plays a synthesiser with a harpsichord-like setting. Also on the disc is Glass’s 2008 Sonata for Violin and Piano.

There’s a 2016 performance of the American Four Seasons on YouTube where the American Youth Symphony are led by Robert McDuffie, who had first proposed the idea to Glass some years earlier of “a work that could be programmed with the classic Vivaldi war-horse.”