THE ARRIVIAL of yet another recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, this one by violinist Felix Ayo with the Berlin Chamber Orchestra under Vittorio Negri (Phillips 9500,100), did not look like an exciting event. There must have been a hundred of these since the Big Baroque Boom began (this was, in fact, the work that set it off), and besides, RCA has a new one in which James Galway plays the solo part on the flute instead of the violin. The new Philips issue proved so enjoyable, though, that it provoked a re-evaluation of nearly 20 other recordings of this enchanting set of concertos - which may not be the worst way to spend a rainy weekend.
The Four Seasons, as no one need by reminded by now, has by no means remained a preserve of baroque specialists, or even chamber orchestras; the work has been recorded by such conductors as Bernstein, Cantelli, Karajan, Ormandy and Stokowski, and by such virtuosi as Perlman, Szeryng and Zukerman - all three of whom double as conductors.
The big-orchestra versions are not to be discounted out of hand. It was, in fact, the old Cetra recording by the Santa Cecilia Orchestra under Bernardino Molinari that got the Vivaldi ball rolling, some 30 years ago. Molinari used his own performing edition, in which the four concertos are transformed into something more like concerti a quattro than solo violin concertos. The spirit was buoyant, but the sound is Ice Age dim: a touching souvenir, but hardly a compelling, let alone authentic, presentation by today's standards.
Stokowski's recording, with the New Philharmonia Orchestra and its then concertmaster, Hugh Bean, as soloist (London SPC-21015), is a good deal more tasteful than one might imagine, and certainly an animated and vividly colored affair. Karajan's, with his superb Berlin concertmaster Michel Schwalbe (Deutsche Grammophon 2530.296), is silky and refined, but strangely unanimated.
The best of the "big band" versions seems to me the one by Bernstein, with the late John Corigliano (who had recorded the work earlier under Cantelli), giving a super-brilliant account of the solo part (Columbia MS-6744). Bernstein himself is at the harpsichord, and you can bet it is audible - quite deliciously so, in fact, at the beginning of the final movement of Spring, in which there is a real chamber-music feel in the interplay between the solo violin, harpsichord and cello. (Bernstein occasionally gets a beat or so ahead of his associates in his continuo playing, but this only underscores the impression of spontaneity.)
The Solisti di Zagreb version under Antonio Janigro, with Jan Tomasow as soloist and Anton Heiler at the harpsichord, has always struck me as dullish, despite the encomium from Stravinsky Janigro, like Molinari, used an arrangement made by himself, and it is one that takes much of the crispness out of the music; it is all too homogenenous, and the late Tomasow, while not at all unsatisfying in general, would not have offended if he had managed to sweeten his tone a bit (as the extremely stylish Reinhold Barchet did in his several records of The Four Seasons, the first of which, in the old Vox mono set of the complete Op. 8 with Rolf Reinhardt conducting, was a gem.)
Franco Gulli, too, makes little effort in the direction of sweetness, but he compensates with an engagin muscularity and wit; if only Alod Ceccato had persuaded his ensemble into a comparable display of vivacity, and the sound itself (on Audio Fidelity FCS-50032) were less wooden, this one might have been a winner.
There is an abundance of sweetness, heaven knows, in the Szeryng, Perlman and Zukerman versions - Perlman with the London Philharmonci on Angel S-37053, both the others with the English Chamber Orchestra, on Philips 6500.076 and Columbia M-31798, respectively. Of these, Szerying is the most elegant, Zukerman the most romanticized, and Perlman sounds most like a primus inter pares while managing to inject some very personal expressive touches into the solo role.
None of these three, nor any of the other soloist-conducted versions, made my ownlist of the Top Five, but, of course, Seasoning can be a very personal matter. For what it may be worth, here is my short list, in inverse order of preference:
No. 5 - Julian Olevsky, with Hermann Scherchen conducting members of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (Westminister WGS-8208). A well-proportioned, unrushed, rather surprisingly (but agreeably) small-scale performaance, exuding a feel of unusual intimacy.
No. 4 - The aforementioned Corigliano/Bernstein.
No. 3 - Konstanty Kulka, with karl Muenchinger and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra (London CS-6809). This is Muenchinger's third time around with The Four Seasons, and it has a flexibility and fludity missing in his rather stiff earlier efforts. Very handsomely recorded, with fine continuo playing by Igor Kipnis.
No. 2 - Luigi Ferro and Guido Mozzato alternating as soloists with Renato Fasano and the Virtuosi di Roma (Angel S-35877, or in the complete Op. 8, SC-3611). What needs to be said about these performers' Vivaldi by now?
No. 1 - The new Ayo/Negri version on Philips 9500.100, which seems to combine the virtues of all the best versions of the past in its vigor, stylishness, soloist-ensemble balance, and marvelous sense of shared delight. This is the one recording of The Four Seasons I would choose to live with now if compelled to limit myself to a single version, and I cannot imageine regretting such a choice. It is one of those things that remind us most warmly of the phrase Artur Schnabel sonatas: "They are," he said, "a safe supply of happiness."