THE SEQUENCE of four violin concertos that Vivaldi called "The Four Seasons" (actually the first four in a set of 12 concertos called "The Contest between Harmony and Invention") has in our time generally been thought of as a conductor's vehicle rather than a violinist's showpiece, and it is usually the orchestra's concertmaster, rather than a visiting celebrity, who plays the solos. So it is in the newest recording of "The Four Seasons," in which Joseph Silverstein is given second billing to Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra -- even though the BSO in this case comprises only 13 strings and a harpsichord (Telarc digital DG-10070).
This is a very enjoyable performance, of the sort to which we have become most accustomed. Tempi are "traditional"; it is all quite comfortable, and also quite brilliant. What a difference, though, when we encounter a soloist who recognizes the opportunities Vivaldi gave him to shine, and a conductor who goes along with, and encourages, his imaginativeness. This we have in the Deutsche Gramophone recording by Gidon Kremer with members of the London Symphony Orchestra under Claudio Abbado (2531.287; cassette 3301.287).
Kremer is not content to be "traditional" or "comfortable." He and Abbado bring out the wit and character of every movement, every phrase, frequently with tempos faster than we are used to (notably in the final concerto, "Winter"). There is nothing that smacks of difference for the sake of being different, though, and the music comes to life with astounding freshness. The continuo treatment by Leslie Pearson (who alternates between harpsichord and organ) is quite imaginative in its own right, too.
Telarc offers outstanding annotation by Steven Ledbetter, and prints the four sonnets in full, in both Italian and good English translations. DG ought to have given us those verses, too, but has given us instead a truly outstanding account of the music, quite the most striking to come along in years.
On Philips (digital, 6514.075; cassette, 7337.075), Kremer plays the Beethoven Violin Concerto, with Neville Marriner conducting the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. The conspicuous difference in this case is not in the tempo, phrasing, or general approach to the work, but in the cadenzas, written especially for Kremer by the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (whose Concerto Grosso Kremer has recorded).
The cadenzas in both outer movements make use of the drums: hardly inappropriate, since Beethoven himself used the drums in the cadenzas he wrote for his piano transcription of this concerto. The substance, though, makes these cadenzas more of a distraction or interruption than an ornament. The one in the first movement includes references to the Brahms Violin Concerto as well as to Beethoven's own Seventh Symphony.
Marriner's thoroughly lackluster conducting is more of a disadvantage, I'm afraid, than the cadenzas. While he had given us more than acceptable recordings of Beethoven's first two symphonies, he seems out of his element, or simply less interested, in the broader demands of the Violin Concerto. The digital recording is very well focused, and Kremer's playing is gorgeous, but this is a rather incomplete account of the greatest of violin concertos.
There is nothing at all incomplete about Itzhak Perlman's digital remake of Lalo's "Symphonie espagnole," this time with the Orchestre de Paris under Daniel Barenboim (DG 2532.011; cassette 3302.011). All five movements are performed, and the filler is the seldom-heard "Reverie et Caprice" by Berlioz. Absolutely first-rate in every respect, and a quite reasonable first choice among all current versions of the Lalo.
The same violinist and conductor, but this time with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, turn in a stunning account of the Elgar Concerto on DG (digital, 2532.035; cassette, 3302.035). Pinchas Zukerman, with the London Philharmonic and Barenboim again conducting (CBS M-34517), is marginally more persuasive in this work, but the marvelous sound of the new recording is quite an equalizer. Either version should break down any resistance felt toward this still little-known major concerto.
In yet another DG digital release, Anne-Sophie Mutter plays the Bruch G minor and Mendelssohn E minor concertos with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (2532.016; cassette, 3302.016). In terms of skill and handsome tone, Mutter may even be the equal of Perlman, but her pacing -- particularly in the Bruch -- is so extremely leisurely as to become soporific. Indeed, in the cover photo Karajan looks as if he has already dozed off. Luscious sound, but a little animation would have been welcome.