The British violinist offers ideas on how to conjure a frosty chill through your violin playing. From the January 2015 issue
The first time I heard The Four Seasons I was three or four years old – Yehudi Menuhin played it with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra in Switzerland. He started with ‘Spring’, and I heard the trills and thought, ‘How can something that sounds like birds be coming from a violin?’ I was fascinated and I fell in love with the piece immediately.
The Four Seasons was popular during Vivaldi’s lifetime, but then disappeared until the beginning of the 20th century. One of the first recordings was made in the 1940s, by Hollywood studio violinist Louis Kaufman, and suddenly the world picked up on it; LP sales went through the roof. Nigel Kennedy’s recording in the late 1980s reinvigorated this frenzy.
Vivaldi wrote the concertos for his students at an orphanage in Venice, which housed the illegitimate and ostracised daughters of noblemen. We know from eyewitness reports that he was an incredible violinist who played at breakneck speeds and loved using ponticello, and that he played so fast and close to the bridge that one didn’t know whether to be scared or impressed. Knowing that helps me when I play The Four Seasons, because there is a wild element in these pieces, especially ‘Winter’.
All four concertos represent nature through music, and Vivaldi (we assume) describes scenes to help our playing: stamping feet in the cold, or chattering teeth. It’s important to know what the words mean, so make sure that you have an edition with a good translation. I use the New Urtext by Ricordi, but there’s also a very good urtext version edited by Christopher Hogwood.
Originally The Four Seasons would have been played with one person to a part, and I perform it without a conductor. For the continuo I like to have a lute or a theorbo in the slow movement and a Baroque guitar in the fast movements, to give a raucous feel. A harpsichord has limited colours, but if you add these plucked instruments it can create the most beautiful sound.
From the first entry at bar 4, keep the left hand trilling constantly and articulate the dotted slurs using the bow to give a queasy, wintry feel. I ask the orchestra to play ponticello from the beginning, and then I crescendo through bars 10 and 11 to the solo entrance at bar 12; for each solo entrance after that (bars 14 and 17), I give more and more. When the violin solo begins in bar 12 (example 1), the score instructs us to tremble from cold in the icy snow, in the harsh breath of the horrid wind. I use ponticello and play with rubato, not completely rhythmically, like a whirlwind. It’s important to define a tempo at bar 13, so that the orchestra knows where to come in.
The score instructs us to tremble from cold in the icy snow, in the harsh breath of the horrid wind
At bar 20 (example 2), we need to ‘hit’ the string to achieve a beating sound. The semiquavers (s) are grouped in fours with dots under a slur, and it’s important to do these bowings – four downs, then four ups. The trick is not to start on the string but to throw the bow and use the natural bounce, letting the bow fall backwards and forwards. If it’s uneven, it doesn’t matter: the effect is more important. Th is bowing helps us to paint the scene for bar 22, where according to the text we have to run, stamping our feet. Use the weight of the bow at the frog and really lay into these notes, especially at the beginning of bars 23, 24 and 25, and do a retake in the middle of each bar.
When the solo starts in bar 26 (example 3), try not to play the demisemiquavers ( ) like a bat out of hell: the continuo parts are playing with you here and they have quavers (e). It has to have energy and to keep moving but there is a danger of playing too fast, and then you and the orchestra won’t be together. Try to align the ensemble going in bar 26, bringing a held quality to the first two beats of the bar so that you’re absolutely together when the demisemiquavers begin. Sometimes I add trills to this passage, just to make it more brilliant, although I change what I do from performance to performance. One possibility is to add a sextuplet turn on the E flats of the octave runs in bar 28; another is to trill on the Cs in the second half of bar 29.
The orchestral parts read ‘venti’ at bar 33, so the bow stroke shouldn’t be too short; the same principle applies to the solo part (example 4). For bars 31–33, play on the string but in the upper half, with very flexible, fast and light bows, using friction to give a slight wind-like hiss.
I wouldn’t take any extra time at the end of bar 33: if you do a ritardando, it’s difficult to stay in time with the cello and it removes all the tension from the music. I tend to diminuendo from the second half of bar 37 through to the middle of bar 38, to end the phrase and prepare for the reintegration of the opening structure, where the cello starts again.
When we get to bar 47 (example 5), Vivaldi says that our teeth are chattering because it’s so cold. I don’t play these double-stops exactly together, and I bow slightly off the string in the upper half with a sautillé-like stroke, to imitate chattering teeth. It’s wonderful if you can get the violas to play ponticello at this point, because it gives a fantastic, wintry anchor to the music. There are three layers of rhythm here: quavers in the violas, semiquavers in the violins and demisemiquavers in the solo part. It’s so simple and yet so effective and beautiful. I finish the movement, from the second half of bar 62, with a fourth finger on the G string. To end I pull up a tiny bit, making sure that we all hit the last chord strongly together.
This movement shouldn’t be too slow. If possible, use an edition that includes the sempre-forte demisemiquaver cello part in octave jumps against the piano solo violin. Th is sounds extraordinary: as though the solo violin is inside, contented and warm, while the orchestra is outside in the cold. The text here tells us that we are before the fire, passing our days contentedly while the rain pours down outside. For me, the rain is the semiquaver pizzicato of the violins. Th is image helps me to feel the music’s lyricism and define the fingerings I use (example 6).
Vivaldi’s slow movements are like skeletons, and I flesh them out with ornamentation. For example, you could play a run from the B flat at the end of bar 1 up to the first A flat of bar 2, and trill on the final A flat. Depending on the mood you’re trying to create, you can vary the way you play the trills: decide whether you’re going to start on the upper note, let the sound decay, or add a turn. The trill in bar 17 is very long, so you really have to save your bow. I tend not to do much of a ritardando here because it’s difficult to tie in with the orchestra pizzicato, but it’s nice to slow a little. Sometimes I ask the first violins to keep playing pizzicato notes instead of playing the trill with me at the end, to give the effect of a few remaining drips of rain.
I do an attacca into the third movement to highlight the contrast between the cosy warmth of the second movement and what comes next, which is something a little bit scary. According to the score the cello begins at the start of the third movement, but I ask it to come in while I’m still playing the final E flat of the preceding movement, just for a second, so that the new scene is set before I begin. Here Vivaldi tells us we are treading an icy path slowly and cautiously, afraid of slipping over. The cello should play slightly ponticello, to give the feeling of ice and slipperiness.
I play cautiously but freely, not rhythmically, as though I’m walking on ice; sometimes I even do a little glissando between the first and the second notes (example 7). If you do take rhythmic liberties, you have to find a way of getting back into tempo before bar 20 to give the orchestra an indication of the correct speed. I start to do this around bar 18, and I play the quavers of bar 20 strictly in time. Often Baroque violinists have more imagination than the modern ones do, so it’s worth listening to a few different recordings to get a feel for how they play this – Simon Standage or Fabio Biondi, for example.
The passage from bar 25 can lull you into a false sense of security. We’re still feeling our way here, and I play with very little bow in the upper half, starting on a down bow (example 8). From bar 30, slurred, pointed notes bring a sense of impatience into the music. Soloist and orchestra should play from here until bar 38 using very little up bows with a lot of definition, to build tension. Th at tension is released in bar 40, where Vivaldi tells us that we turn abruptly, slip and crash on to the ground, then rise and hasten across the ice as it cracks. Th is section needs to be strong. I use the upper half of the bow, with almost a martellato stroke – and the same in bar 48 (example 9). For the solo in bar 51, I play somewhere between on and off the string.
By this point we’re starting to find our footing on the ice and can gain confidence, putting a little emphasis on the first beat of each bar. We’ve become quite confident by bar 62. I tend to go straight into tempo here to make the direction of the music clear, bowing on the string and in the upper half.
At bar 73 (example 10), I move to the lower half of the bow and I make the final two notes of each bar very short at the frog, playing quite aggressively until bar 77. At bar 80 it’s important not to rush: the triplets need to be in time, with smooth legato and no accents on each group, except for on the first beat.
The ice starts to break at bar 89 (example 11). You have to give the orchestra a good lead to make sure you stay together: everybody plays the demisemiquavers with you, and this part is notorious for going wrong! Bar 90 I do in the lower half of the bow with real energy, very fast and with big pauses on the second beats of 89, 90 and 91. The first note of bar 100 (example 12) is a quaver, but the cello has a crotchet. Maybe it’s a misprint – we don’t know – but I like to think it wasn’t, because it gives us the chance to take a pause before coming in at bar 101. Here we’re supposed to feel the chill of the north winds, despite our locked and bolted doors, so there’s a sense of wind howling through cracks. We should play a light and airy flautando with the first and second violins.
I start on an up bow and stay in the upper half, then play up–down, emphasising the first of each pair a little bit. Listen to the viola semiquavers on pain of death in bar 101: this is a magical moment.
The final violin solo starts at bar 120, where Vivaldi says, ‘This is winter, which nonetheless brings its own delights.’ So after all the cautiousness, the breaking ice and the wind howling through cracks, he’s giving us a licence to have fun until the end. I play this extremely fast, in a completely new tempo – almost in one, like a wild wind. Whatever tempo you decide to do, it’s important to stick to it. If you get faster, the orchestra will never catch you up. I don’t slow down in the last few bars: I stay in that tempo right until the end.
INTERVIEW BY PAULINE HARDING