We tend to think of Vivaldi’s violin concertos as springing from a spontaneous urge to create material through which his brilliant pupils could display their talents. And although the twelve works in the collection known as La Stravaganza were indeed dedicated to a Venetian nobleman who had been trained by him, their genesis had more to do with commerce than with art for art’s sake.
To be precise, with export in mind, because it was in Northern Europe, rather than the Italian south, that the amateur market throve where the easier works of the Baroque masters were popular among the string-players of the bourgeoisie.
Vivaldi had to contend with competition not only from other composers but also from copyright pirates, because there was then no such thing as copyright law: Bach was one of those who recycled his concertos, sometimes without attribution. Once Vivaldi’s works had been printed and he’d got his publisher’s fee, that was the end of his earnings from them, which was why he preferred to sell them in manuscript form at a guinea apiece.
Meanwhile musical competition came from the older masters by whom he was influenced, notably Albinoni and Corelli, with the latter’s popularity in London far outshining his own. Vivaldi also had to contend with the nationalist prejudice which led the British composer Charles Avison to condemn Italian works as being ‘only fit amusement for children’. When the London publisher John Walsh did start issuing Vivaldi’s violin concertos, it was with a weather eye on their possible rejection as too difficult to play.
Fabio Biondi and his Italian period-instrument ensemble Europa Galante delivered six Stravaganza concertos, plus two Sinfonias, with their customary exuberance. Their sound had muscular attack, with none of the gleaming surface we are used to in Vivaldi on modern instruments, and since most of these works predated ‘The Four Seasons’ it was no surprise that they should offer only intermittent pre-echoes of the Vivaldi all the world knows.
But that was part of the concert’s charm. Biondi’s convivial presence allowed him to conduct as vigorously as he played, and the effects he drew from his all-string band were vivid in the extreme, with the theorbo adding darkness and mystery, and the double bass at times marking the beat like percussion. This music was earthy rather than transcendent, and probably truer to the spirit of the Red Priest as a result.