Le Quattro Stagioni
Le Quattro Stagioni
On this album, two of Denmark's most exciting young ensembles, Ekkozone and Alpha, join forces in exhilarating performances of the Danish composer Peter Navarro-Alonso’s (b. 1973) original response to two Vivaldi masterpieces, the iconic Four Seasons and another of the many virtuosic violin concertos from the great Barqoue master’s hand.
Peter Navarro-Alonso: Le Quattro Stagioni
by Klaus Møller-Jørgensen
All the fundamental building-blocks of music have long since been invented. The crucial thing is how they are to be combined. There is therefore nothing invidious about writing new music that directly uses, builds on or refers to older music. And there is thus no distance or irony in play either when Peter Navarro-Alonso writes brand new music over one of the world’s best known musical works, Vivaldi’s Le Quattro Stagioni – The Four Seasons. He quite simply uses the available material in his own original way, and such that he feels that it works and sounds good.
Peter Navarro-Alonso is both a saxophonist and organist, and not least as an organist has played a lot of Baroque music, which he greatly appreciates; and like many other contemporary composers he sees many features shared by Baroque and modern composition music. With the two works on this album he approaches Baroque music in two different ways.
Le Quattro Stagioni is a tribute to Vivaldi in particular and to the fantastic work which The Four Seasons in fact is, regardless of how it has been used and misused – from nature documentaries to cellphone ringtones. Navarro-Alonso directly uses many quotations from Vivaldi, to various extents and modulated in different ways.
Concerto in Si minore is more generally inspired by some of the most characteristic features of Baroque music, which Navarro-Alonso examines more closely in a present-day light and with a point of departure in another Vivaldi work, the concerto for four violins RV 580. Si minore is a kind of counterpart to Quattro Stagioni, composed for a small ensemble (Alpha), without strings. Both works are influenced, however, by Navarro-Alonso’s great interest in classic electroacoustic effects such as delay, loop, acceleration and deceleration. In Si minore he directly uses tape and loop pedal in three of the movements; in Quattro Stagioni he imitates the effects acoustically.
Le Quattro Stagioni – The Four Seasons
A few years ago Peter Navarro-Alonso and his trio Alpha were invited to a Baroque music festival in Poland, and were presented there with a challenge from the Baroque ensemble Arte dei Suonatori – whether they could create something together around Summer from Vivaldi’s Seasons. Navarro-Alonso took up the challenge and arrived at something that turned out to work well for the trio and the Baroque ensemble. Afterwards it seemed reasonable to go on with the rest of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Alpha has for several years now had the work in its regular concert repertoire, with the trio supplemented with strings from the Danish ensemble Ekkozone under the direction of Mathias Reumert.
Vivaldi’s Le Quattro Stagioni consists of four small violin concertos with three movements in each, and with each concerto a small seasonal poem is linked – the so-called sonnets, which can be read as a very specific programme for the music. In Navarro-Alonso’s version of the Seasons there is only one movement for each season; on the other hand he has quite freely used motifs and other material from various movements within each season by Vivaldi – in some places more clearly than in others. In addition Navarro-Alonso has also drawn inspiration from the sonnets.
By juxtaposing the trio with a string ensemble, Navarro-Alonso can be said to have transformed Vivaldi’s solo concertos into another of the concerto forms of the Baroque, the concerto grosso, in which a small ensemble is combined with a larger ensemble. He has found a number of points of contact between the Baroque ensemble and the solo trio; on one hand, points where they duplicate each other in surprising ways, and on the other, places where they stand as stark contrasts to each other. Finally, with his four movements he approaches the archetype for major orchestral works, with a quick first movement, a wild, scherzo-like second movement, a calm adagio-like third movement and a quick final movement.
In La primavera (Spring) we experience a development from an incipient budding to an intense discharge at the end, with a couple of troughs along the way. The parallel to the spring, when everything is budding, is clear. Strings and percussion are both very prominent in the soundscape, and the strings play staccato. The movement is intense and insistent. Like spring flowers that refuse to be stopped by the still slightly frozen soil.
The movement begins with a still quiver – perhaps a purling stream? Gradually the music grows in intensity, several percussion instruments join in, the juices rise, everything is growing. Suddenly all is still, the quivering sound from the beginning stands alone, until two ‘flutes’ (one is a saxophone in the high register) engage in a duel, like two blackbirds singing in competition – in melodic fragments that are easily recognizable from the first movement of Vivaldi’s Spring. The music swells again beneath them, until a quiet interlude in the strings (with roots in Vivaldi’s third movement) prepares the way for a last tumultuous discharge; a warning of the violent storm that breaks out in Summer.
L’estate (Summer) is one long evocation of the terrible storm that Vivaldi depicts in the third movement of his southern summer, with the related sonnet: “The lightning strikes with thundering salvoes of hailstones, destroying the corn and bending great trees to the ground.”
In this movement, which as mentioned is the seed of the whole composition, Navarro-Alonso is closest to Vivaldi’s original; the strings exclusively play Vivaldi notes, The trio plays alternately with the strings and against the strings, in a kind of call-and-response. In many places the two solo winds and the percussion both imitate the motion of the strings in very fascinating ways, for example in some descending passages where the percussion more or less copies the melodies of the strings.
The movement begins exactly like Vivaldi’s third movement, with the surging summer storm. Quickly the strings are supplemented and reinforced by the solo winds and percussion, and the intensity grows. Midway, the music – or the storm – moves all the way into the absurd with the saxophone’s wild honking, but still with clear reminiscences of the Vivaldi original. It gets wilder and wilder; the music almost breaks up; the string movement appears again and restores a little order to things, but the soloists are not about to submit to such discipline, and the movement grows violent again towards the ending. The storm is unrelenting.
In L’autunno (Autumn) we meet a quite different, inward and subdued atmosphere – an autumnal melancholy in brown and orange and grey-flecked shades. And with secrets and intimations, small motifs that hide in the grey swirl and have the feel of something familiar: striking themes from Vivaldi’s autumn movements are quoted in modulated form. A certain distance is created.
The beginning of the movement, for the strings alone, is based on the opening themes from Vivaldi’s third movement, but at a much reduced tempo. The solo trio takes over, with the theme from Vivaldi’s lamenting second movement, but in different tonal robes. Vibraphone and saxophone evoke a fundamental melancholy. The strings soon join in again, to some extent starting over on their introduction. In the last third of the movement the sopranino flute improvises freely over an autumn sound plateau based on material drawn from Vivaldi. The dancing ecstasies over the yield from harvest and hunt that we find in Vivaldi’s first and third movement are not included here. For Navarro-Alonso the autumn melancholy has descended over everything.
L’inverno (Winter) depicts the icy cold and the turbulent whirling of the snowflakes with small figures that lash out in all directions and yet continue whirling in rings. All the way through the movement Navarro-Alonso plays with quotations from Vivaldi’s winter movements, more or less distorted but often quite recognizable. He creates a wanton, circus-like mood that develops all the way into a virtuosic frenzy. The strings contribute Vivaldi music (as in Summer), which the solo trio distorts and turns inside out. As with Vivaldi it is here at the end that the soloists are allowed to unfold a wild virtuosity.
Concerto in Si minore
The work is entirely without strings, for Alpha alone (flute, saxophone and vibraphone), written especially for this album, as another way of approaching Baroque music and at the same time an exploration of the many possibilities of the trio format in combination with electroacoustic effects. Si minore means B minor and the title refers to Vivaldi’s concerto for four violins in B minor, RV 580, from his opus 3, which consists of a total of twelve violin concertos with varying numbers of solo violins. But it is only in the fourth movement of the work that Navarro-Alonso uses Vivaldi’s music directly.
In Si minore 1 we clearly sense a familiar Baroque-like chord cycle, although the tempo is slow. The movement is a kind of fantasia over the harmonic basis of Baroque music and in fact consists of nothing but a chord sequence. But the chords are delivered with a very beautiful, simple, soft sound at once full and crystal-clear.
The sound recalls that of a harmonium, where the sound seems drawn out of the instrument. However, it is a vibraphone that plays a chord sequence from Vivaldi on which Navarro-Alonso has elaborated. First the chord sequence was recorded on tape with the music read backwards (i.e. the last bar first then the second-last bar etc.); then the recording was reversed (so the bars come in the right order), and this ‘inversion’ is then played while the vibraphonist plays the notes live. This produces a quite special combination of sound created with an instrumental attack and sound that simply grows out of itself. Fascinating and trance-like. One hardly notices the flute and saxophone, which are only used to add colour to the timbre.
Si minore 2 is a tour de force for several layers of vibraphones – and soon also for saxophone and flute. The movement has nothing to do with Vivaldi but much to do with Philip Glass and minimalism, with its minimal displacements within a constant repetition of small figures and sequences. As in the first movement a trance-like state arises, but in a quite different way. Although there is no reference to Vivaldi, there is nevertheless a clear reference to a characteristic feature of Baroque music in general: frequent use of motifs or chord sequences that run in rings and with a fixed pulse – what with an apt expression has been called “cyclical Baroque”.
The movement begins with a quite simple motif seesawing between two notes (of a minor third), and this little musical building block is gradually unfolded in larger intervals and arpeggios and in ever-growing layers. With the aid of a loop pedal the vibraphonist records himself as he plays, and immediately afterwards plays the loop back; the movement has up to six vibraphone layers. The constant perpetual motion gradually also brings in the other two instruments, which add more colours to the timbre and with their attacks emphasize the staccato-like and thus the strongly rhythmic element.
Si minore 3 plays with the fact that in Baroque music, shifts among the parts (polyphony) are conducive to flexibility, accentuation and forward drive. Navarro-Alonso turns this around – here the rhythmic displacements produce a strange hovering or floating sensation, along with beautiful, simple sounds and chords.
The movement begins with just a single repeated note on the vibraphone. It is played in octaves, and gradually more notes join it, also in the winds, constantly rhythmically staggered. It is very difficult to pin down a basic pulse, despite the slow tempo and an apparently fixed metre. In the end the notes thin out again and die away. The distinctive sound is created by the trio playing in a dry staccato throughout, but at the same time a parallel tape is running, doubling all the notes and thus produces lots of reverb.
Si minore 4 is the only purely acoustic movement, and here Navarro-Alonso uses direct quotations from the first movement of the Vivaldi concerto, transformed to a greater or lesser degree. The three parts play alternately together, staggered or against one another – in other words contrapuntally, with another of the characteristics of Baroque music.
It begins with a single little motif in descending motion, which alternates and circles in syncopation among the three soloists. It develops in several rounds and directions, incorporating ever-new fragments of quotations. The movement – and thus the whole work – ends with everything unified in a clear, unambiguous reference or ‘homage’ to Baroque music.
Klaus Møller-Jørgensen, 2017