Friday 20 November 2015

Seasons - Oliver Davis and Antonio Vivaldi

Seasons - Oliver Davis, Vivaldi
Oliver Davis Anno, Anno Epilogue, Vivaldi The Four Seasons; Grace Davidson, Kerenza Peacock, The Trafalgar Sinfonia, Ivor Setterfield; Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 13 2015
Star rating: 3.5

Vivaldi's iconic work paired with new setting of the accompanying poems

Everyone seems to want to record Vivaldi's The Four Seasons and to stand out, you need a take on it. Thankfully this new recording on Signum Classics from violinist Kerenza Peacock with Ivor Setterfield conducting the Trafalgar Sinfonia is quite straight forward without any untoward quirks, instead it is the pairing which brings the interest. The young composer Oliver Davis has set the four poems which preface each of the concertos (poems which may even be by Vivaldi himself), sung by Grace Davidson. This new work Anno prefaces The Four Seasons on the disc and then Davis has written a short Anno Epilogue to round things off.

Oliver Davis graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in 1994 and his work since then has included soundtracks, albums, television scores as well as concertos and ballet. His debut album Flight was a series of violin concertos written for Kerenza Peacock, the solo violinist on this disc.

The poems from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons closely parallel the musical programme (which is why people think Vivaldi wrote the poems). Oliver Davis's setting, in the original Italian, divides the setting of each poem into three sections mirroring the three movements of Vivaldi's concertos. Throughout the new work, Anno, I noticing a number of influences on the sound of the music. The one which I mainly kept coming back to was Britten's Les Illuminations, there is something about Davis's writing for soprano and strings which kept echoing the earlier work, particularly in the textures of the piece. And frankly Britten's song cycle is no bad model to have, and overall Davis creates a distinct and attractively appealing sound.

La primavera opens with an attractively fast orchestra introduction, when the voice does come in the combination of Grace Davidson's long-lined lyric soprano with the lively string texture is very striking. The slower middle section is followed by a finale with some perkily rhythmic writing for the strings. L'estate is very similar in style, though the content shows that Davis clearly has a fertile imagination. The text setting is often very syllabic, which gives the whole a quite distinctive tint.  L'autumno has a number of rather catchy motifs, almost tunes indeed with a middle section which is in fact rather romantic and an uneasy concluding section where the emotional atmosphere again recalls Les Illuminations. L'inverno is a more thoughtful piece. Here, and in the whole work the handling of repeated figures in the accompaniment sometimes recalls Adams or Glass, but overall there is nothing minimalist about Davis's approach. His writing is often made up of small melodic motifs rather than long melodies, which also give a distinctive tine to the work.  In terms of line and sound, Davidson's performance in this song cycle is exemplary with a lovely free clear sound, but few of the words come over.

Violinist Kerenza Peacock's career spans a whole variety of genres. Classically trained with a fine pedigree, she is recording an album with an alt-bluegrass band and for 15 years led the Pavao Quartet which played the classical repertoire and collaborated with popular artists. But there is nothing remotely crossover to Peacock's approach to The Four Seasons. She, Ivor Setterfield and the Trafalgar Sinfonia have crafted a very straightforward direct account of the work, in which a sense of narrative and story telling is to the fore.

Spring opens with some good straight sound from the strings and a nice crispness to the playing. They use modern instruments, but there is a bit of air between the notes and a nice incisiveness to the playing. The soloist is not over spotlit, and Peacock's playing is definitely modern in style and her approach to the part but thankfully not overly romanticised. In the slow movement she plays with a lovely singing tone whilst there is a nice dance-y feel to the final Allegro. Here the playing is sweet-toned and characterful, you feel as if Peacock is definitely responding to the story-line.

Summer starts with excitement and drama, and again Peacock gives us a nice sense of narrative. The middle movement makes a great deal of the possibilities of different colours and textures between soloist and ensemble, whilst the final movement goes with terrific verve with some great attack from all concerned.

Autumn starts remarkably steadily but very articulated and strongly characterised, and the slow movement is all hushed muted strings with a damped harpsichord adding to the texture. This use of different colours and textures is very characteristic of the performance as Peacock and Setterfield seem to use all the resources at their command to tell Vivaldi's narrative. The final movement is a country dance which is definitely full of verve, though it ends on rather a low key.

Winter opens with excitement in the story, whilst the middle movement has some beautifully sweet toned spun-line from Peacock. The final movement concludes with some great excitement which builds to the end.

This would not be my ideal performance of the work, there are moments when it is clear that the Trafalgar Sinfonia is working with a relatively small group of players. And whilst Peacock's style is appealing, she is simply not historically informed enough for my taste, and there are moments when clearly challenged by the music. But overall, Peacock and Setterfield bring a lovely sense of narrative and character to the works which links beautifully in with the setting of the original poems.

Davis's epilogue is a short piece which revisits themes from the earlier work, as any good epilogue should.

This is an appealing disc and an imaginative one. If the combination of Vivaldi's iconic concertos with a modern setting of his original poems appeals (and it should), then do not hesitate.

Oliver Davis (born 1972) - Anno
Antonio Vivialdi (1678-1741) - The Four Seasons
 Oliver Davis (born 1972) - Anno Epilogue
Grace Davidson (soprano)
Kerenza Peacock (violin)
The Trafalgar Sinfonia
Ivor Setterfield (conductor)
Elsewhere on this blog:

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