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St. Paul, Minn. — How many recordings of Vivaldi's Four Seasons do you suppose are currently in print? Searching for the answer can make your head spin. Yet, Dutch violinist Janine Jansen felt she had something new to add to this old chestnut. And she was right. The moment I popped this new release in the player, I thought, "this is different." What she's done with one of the most recognizable string works ever is unique …she stripped down the number of players in the orchestra, utilizing one player per part instead of the usual multiple players, plus she hand-picked each player. Jansen adds some unusual instrumentation, too, like the box organ and theorbo, a 17th-century lute–like instrument. Twenty-five-year-old Jansen grew up surrounded by music. Her grandfather led a church choir, her father was a church organist, and her mother a classically-trained soprano. Her father also plays harpsichord, so she invited him to join her on this recording. In fact, she turned almost the entire session into a family affair, by including her brother Maarten on cello, and her violinist boyfriend Julian Rachlin.
Jansen says, "Music is just like nature, surprising, inexhaustible, endless and breathtaking. For me, making music is a way of expressing my feelings and that is why I approach every piece as freshly and spontaneously as possible." Her goal is to be faithful to Vivaldi's score, while allowing emotion and passion to bring the music alive. In other words, she's willing to risk a few wrong notes in order to maintain the soul of the piece. I can't say that I noticed any wrong notes, but there is plenty of spirit between those notes. This recording is full of little surprises. Here's something that just caught my ear. In the final movement of "Autumn," the ensemble is performing in syncopated rhythm, when all of sudden I noticed this percussive stringed instrument, it must be the theorbo, plucked its way to the forefront.
What's great about the reduced forces Jansen uses on this recording is that the musicians have more flexibility. They can alter the coloring, the dynamics and the timing on a dime, adding to the spontaneous energy of the performance. A prime example is in the final movement of "Winter." Just when you think the strings are fading into the woodwork, somebody gives the nod, and they all race to the finish line.
What made me sit down and listen to this recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons from start to finish is that it's all very transparent. You can hear every nuance. So, if you think you've heard it all before when it comes to Vivaldi's most popular set of concertos, this fresh recording might prove you wrong.