Vivaldi’s op.8 set of violin concertos – including the Four Seasons – was an early inspiration for the British Baroque violinist and founder of the orchestra La Serenissima


Photo: Lia Vittone

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I was ten years old when I heard the whole of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for the first time. I’d started learning the violin two years earlier, and I’d already had a go at playing the composer’s A minor Concerto op.3 no.6 and liked it. So at Christmastime I noticed BBC Radio 3 was airing a concert by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields which included the Four Seasons, with Iona Brown as soloist. She was such a great player and I immediately thought that these were a jaw-dropping set of pieces. It was only later that I discovered they were part of a much larger set of twelve concertos, The Contest between Harmony and Invention, which stimulated my curiosity even more.

The first of the op.8 concertos I tried to play myself was no.7 – probably the oldest concerto in the set, and one of the only ones I could borrow from Liverpool Central Library. It was a few years later, when I’d moved to Colchester, that I started working on them seriously with my teacher. The first one was ‘Autumn’, possibly the trickiest one of the lot, and I certainly had to improve my technique in order to play it. The first movement takes exceptional coordination, while the finale contains sextuplets that most people play slurred – even though there are no slurs in the manuscript. You can bodge it to a degree but you do need to hear all the notes.

I started playing the Baroque violin when I was 16. For a short time there was an Essex Youth Baroque Orchestra run by Peter Holman, who founded the Parley of Instruments. Although the players all used modern instruments, he coached the strings in a Baroque way, which piqued my interest. So when I started at the Royal College of Music I was already quite well versed in Baroque performance, although my tutor Rodney Friend once  called the Baroque timpani’s timbre ‘like a biscuit tin being kicked round a football pitch’! He had some brilliant ideas all the same; the last movement of ‘Autumn’ has a passage that I could never make clean, and he came up with an unconventional fingering starting on an up bow that no one else could have thought of. Baroque treatises usually advise starting on a down bow – but then again, Tartini said you should be able to play anything ‘back to front’.

La Serenissima Wells February 2024 cr Robin Bigwood

Photo: Robin Bigwood

Rodney’s advice was always: if you have a problem with something, first of all work out exactly what it is and why it’s there. Then you’ll already be 90 per cent of the way to solving it. I think that’s the best advice for playing difficult passages in works by Vivaldi or any other composer.

Vivaldi was obviously a bit of a nutter. The sheer energy it takes to play the op.8 concertos tells you that he was an incredibly virtuosic player himself, and it all comes out in the score. The fast movements are relentlessly energetic, while the slow movements are unbelievably beautiful and soulful; real tear-jerkers where the composer wears his heart on his sleeve. That said, every solo part sits well on the instrument, such that you can tell it must have been written by a violinist. There are many pieces written by non-violinists that are tricky because they’re aren’t written idiomatically. With Vivaldi, it’s just because it’s really hard! No.5, ‘La Tempesta di Mare’, for example, has absolutely brilliant passagework, but I’d recommend all violinists play the concertos for the sheer exuberance of it.

Next year will be the 300th anniversary of the publication of op.8, and also the 30th of our ensemble, La Serenissima. So we’re going to be recording a set of the concertos as two separate releases. The first is recorded and we’ll put the rest together in the autumn.


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