In his preface to L'Estro Armonico, Vivaldi (or possibly his publisher, Estienne Roger) had promised the dilettanti di musica a sequel to this collection, this time of concertos a quattro. No doubt this specification, the smallest possible scoring for a concerto, was intended to reassure the public that the brilliant and complex layout of the Opus 3 set would not be repeated in future; not every amateur ensemble would have been capable of providing four violinists of solo calibre, nor willing to buy the eight part-books involved.

Opus 4 proved to be almost (but not quite) what Vivaldi had promised. 'The five part-books were Violino di Concertino, violino Primo, violino Secondo, Alto Viola and organo e violoncello, the normal disposition for solo concertos with string orchestra accompaniment, and the collection carried a fulsome dedication to Vettor Delfino, a Venetian aristocrat and ex-pupil of Vivaldi.

The title of La Stravaganza presents more problems now than it would have done in the early 18th century, when both composers and performers could be commended for their stravaganze, their skill at containing the unexpected and bizarre within an established etiquette. Similar titles had been in use for some years: the Consonanze stravaganti of de Macque, Trabaci and del Buono had established the term during the previous century as implying harmonic extravagances that even outdid the chromatic audacities of Gesualdo's madrigals, while the Capriccio stravagante of Carlo Farina (published in 1627) employed every device of the new violin technique to extravagant programmatic ends (including the imitation of cats and dogs).

Even in advance of his concertos, Vivaldi's extravagances as a player had been relayed throughout Europe.

"Towards the end of the work" reported von Uffenbach from the Venetian carnival of 1715 "Vivaldi performed a solo accompaniment admirably, and at the end lie added an improvised cadenza which quite confounded me, for such playing has never been heard before and can never be equaled. He placed his fingers but a hair's breadth from the bridge, so that there was hardly room for the bow. He played thus on all four strings with imitative passages at incredible speed. Everyone was astonished, but I cannot say that it captivated me because it was more skillfully executed than it was pleasant to hear."

These misgivings were confirmed some days later when Vivaldi responded to an invitation to play for the German traveller at his house.

"Some bottles of wine were ordered for him, since he was one of the Church's musicians, and he then let me hear some very difficult and quite inimitable improvisations on the violin. From close to I had to admire his skill all the more, and I saw quite clearly that he played unusual and lively pieces, to be sure, but in a way that lacked both charm and a cantabile manner." (from Die musikalischen Reisen des Herrn von Uffenbach, 1712-1716)

Perhaps surprisingly to a modern listener, the eighteenth century found similar grounds for censure in Vivaldi's opus 4 set of concertos. Charles Avison (perhaps the earliest English music critic in the modern sense) listed Vivaldi in his lowest category of composers, along with Tessarini, Alberti and Locatelli -- writers who essayed "the most unnatural modulalations" and whose works were solely for "the amusement of children"! Ginguené, who contributed the article on 'Concerto' in the Encyclopédie, mentions Vivaldi's "brilliant, difficult and occasionally bizarre passage work" and picks on La Stravaganza as a specific example of the composer being "more taken up with the cares of astounding the ear than with those of enchanting it".

These two traits, -- however harmonic daring and bizarre passage work -- are precisely the features that distinguish these concertos for the modern listener; they also demonstrate the care Vivaldi took over the selection and grouping of works designed for publication (despite his disclaimer that, under normal conditions, he could "compose a concerto in all its parts faster than a copyist could copy it".) In each of these twelve concertos he presents a carefully calculated solution to the problem of avoiding perfidia, the opposite of stravaganza, defined by Brossard in his Dictionnaire de musique of 1703 as "a predeliction to do always the same thing, to follow always the same scheme, to maintain the same rhythm".

Vivaldi choses to excite and then refute every expectation his audience would have had of the traditional concerto established by Corelli, or the precedent set by Vivaldi himself. This unpredictability is far from capricious, however, since the collection as a whole is as carefully organised as opus 3. Where L'Estro Armonico was arranged by groups of three concertos for a varying number of soloists, La Stravaganza is grouped in pairs, one major, one minor, with an adjustment made (as it was in opus 3) so that the whole set should end in the major. Within this tidy framework, however, there is less uniformity and a wide variety of allusion which helps to establish Vivaldi's peculiar brand of stravaganza.

Although only one of the concertos (no. 7) adopts the four movement form of the traditional concerto grosso, nos. 1, 4, 9 and 11 all allude to the traditional scoring for a solo group of two violins and continuo, by calling on a single player from the ripieno to join the soloist in many sections. The last movement of 7 is in fact constructed entirely on the Corellian contrasts between this group and the tutti, while the very first movement of the whole set presents the soloist as part of the concertino until his last section.

In addition to these allusions to the concerto grosso, Vivaldi deliberately calls to mind his own experiments in opus 3. It is no coincidence that the most famous concerto of that set, the 11th in D minor, should be mirrored in no. 11 of this new collection, with an equally distinctive opening of reiterated arpeggios, again for two unaccompanied violins, but this time in D major. There are similar reflections in several of the other concertos: the opening themes of nos. 2 and 5 relate to concertos 6 and 8 of opus 3, and no. 9 resembles op. 3/3 in the themes of both its first and second movements.

The remaining concertos (nos. 2, 5, 8, 10 and 12) all look, not to the concerto grosso, but to the true solo concerto form, as suggested by Torelli and Albinoni, and already hinted at in L'Estro Armonico (nos. 3, 6, 9 and 12). Here it is clear that Vivaldi has responded to the implications of tripartite form, and emphasized the scope and scale of the slow movement in each case. Where, in Torelli, the adagio might consist of little more than a few punctuating chords, Vivaldi here goes well beyond anything he produced in opus 3-1 he increases the scale of drama between solo and tutti elements (using a ritornello of striking dynamic contrasts in no. 2 and a persistent dotted rhythm in no. 4), he supplies a solo line so elaborately decorated in nos. 2, 3 and 5 that this in itself would have appeared an extravagance to Italians who were accustomed to improvising their own embellishments, and in the last concerto he even develops the slow movement into a complete chaconne, based on a typical Baroque descending scale. By contrast, however, the tutti play very little part in the slow movement of no. 6, in no. 10 they supply nothing but a Corellian introduction and coda, and in 5 and 11 they are silent altogether, and the soloist is supported by continuo alone,

This expansion of the importance of the central movement is matched by a greater scale and degree of organization in the fast movements. In no. 8, which is the most extravagant of the entire set, the first and last movements are even thematically connected. In every case the number of solo sections is amplified and the tuttis (especially in the opening movements) tend to incorporate a more extensive development of the musical material than before; the variety in the opening tuttis of the first two concertos, for instance, is evidence of Vivaldi's awareness of the structural importance of the tutti in a solo concerto.

His finales in La Stravaganza tend to be less complicated in construction, based on lighter themes, and more soloist-dominated. Nos. 7 and 11 employ elements of popular tunes in their ritornelli, and no. 12 offers the soloist longer and more variegated solos than any of the others. In this recording the variety has been matched by employing a different combination of continuo instruments for each section.

If any one concerto is to be taken as an example of the 'extravagant' manner, no. 8 is clearly the best candidate. It opens, not with the "magnificent opening ritornello, with all the parts well elaborated" which was advised by Quantz, but with an almost atonal violin solo which only reluctantly finds its way to D minor for the entry of the aggressive ritornello. The following solo passages bear only a slight relationship to the tutti material, and without any more development of these ideas, the soloist leads into a succession of harmonic experiments: one bar of adagio, a short presto based entirely on chord patterns which leads without a break into a longer adagio - the epitome of Avison's "unnatural harmonies". This section is marked by Vivaldi arcate lunghe for the strings (an indication that he intended no decoration to be added), and arpeggio per il cembalo in the figured-bass part. The last movement is the only one to begin normally, with a tutti in the style of a fast minuet that develops into two contrasting ideas -- a smoothly phrased string figure, and a dotted pattern -- each of which are used as independent motives to punctuate the increasingly adventurous solos.

It is on the strength of such a movement as this that Vivaldi has been accredited with precognition of classical form, the exposition of the tutti, and the development and contrast of the solo sections being equated with the classical concerto principle. In fact, bearing in mind Quantz's advice that "the best ideas of the ritornello may be broken up and placed between or inserted within the solos", and Vivaldi's own ingenuity at relating his stravaganz to the basic musical material, such a movement can be construed as the inevitable outcome of a Baroque imagination.


Antonio Vivaldi