Who can imagine a world without Vivaldi's 'The Four Seasons'? And yet until Louis Kaufman made this recording back in 1947, that set of violin concertos was barely known except to the cognoscenti and Vivaldi himself was barely better known; the first recording EVER of music by Vivaldi was made in 1942! This 2CD set preserves the Kaufman recording, the first ever made of the Op. 8 'Four Seasons' concertos as well as, from 1950, the other eight Op. 8 concertos (known collectively as 'Il Cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione,' roughly 'Experiment in Harmony and Invention'), and the two-violin concerto, with Peter Rybar playing the second violin. Kaufman himself reckons this recording put him on the map; his memoir 'A Fiddler's Tale,' published in 2002, has a telling subtitle: 'How Hollywood and Vivaldi Discovered Me.' Kaufman was indeed the violinistic voice of Hollywood movies for a matter of decades. When you hear a solo violin in a movie sound track (e.g. Casablanca, Gone with the Wind ['Tara's Theme'], Wuthering Heights, Modern Times, Intermezzo, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) from the '30s and '40s, chances are you're hearing Louis Kaufman. He was the original violist in the Fine Arts Quartet, having studied with the doyen of American chamber music violinists, Franz Kneisel, at what was to later become the Juilliard School. But he and his pianist wife, Annette, landed in Hollywood and stayed there the rest of his life. His widow, Dr. Annette Kaufman, was apparently very helpful in supplying materials for this release. This is the first authorized release of these recordings on CD.
When this first-ever set of 'Four Seasons' recordings came out - on 78s and then quickly on LPs as they took over the market - they were a phenomenon. Indeed, this recording has recently been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. And, of course, it was partially instrumental in setting off the whole baroque music boom that began in the 1950s and which still seems to be gaining steam. These performances were recorded with two different orchestras and two different conductors: 'The Four Seasons,' with the 'Concert Hall Chamber Orchestra' under Henry Swoboda, and, for the other concerti, the Winterthur Symphony under Clemens Dahinden. (The 'Concert Hall Chamber Orchestra' was made up of New York Philharmonic strings, and the recording was mostly made late on New Year's Eve 1947 to avoid a musicians' strike set to start the next day. Edith Weiss-Mann, a pioneering harpsichordist, played continuo, but I can rarely hear her contribution. The excellent Winterthur orchestra sounds larger than the 'Concert Hall' orchestra and was actually made up of Zurich orchestral musicians that recorded frequently under this name. )
What of these performances? I am no specialist in baroque performance practice, but I can hear that the orchestras are probably larger than would be used for present day recordings, and the tuning is modern concert A=440. And I suppose there are some aspects of Kaufman's and the orchestras' playing that are more romantic than baroque--for instance there are occasional portamenti, however, slight, and use of tasteful vibrato that would be abjured by modern-day baroquists. But for me, they are simply lovely. There is no questioning Kaufman's sweet tone or technique or, for its time, style. I first heard these 'Seasons' recordings in the 1950s, just as I was entering college, and can remember sitting up half the night with a classmate marveling at not only the music, which was new to us, but at the playing. For the time, I might add, the recorded sound was pretty darn good, and in this restoration by Victor and Marina Ledin, it is really quite good. One hears a slight amount of surface noise, but this is quickly forgotten.
And in case you don't know the other eight concerti from Op. 8, they are of a piece with their more familiar named siblings, as is the two-violin concerto. The name of Peter Rybar, the other violinist in that concerto, brings back many fond memories for me as he was frequently featured on el cheapo, but very good, classical LPs in the 1950s, the only ones I could afford in my college days. I remember with particular fondness his recording of the Bach Double Concerto with, if memory serves, Henryk Szeryng. He died in 2002 after a long and illustrious career.
At this price, the glories of this set are simply asking to be snapped up by veteran collectors and neophytes alike. This is really just too good to pass up.
2 CDs: 126:34mins