Fanfare

There is an inherent difficulty if one is known only by three first names, especially if the sources list music under all three. But such is the case of Giovanni Antonio Guido (c.1675-c.1728), a composer-violinist who spent much of his working life at the French court of the Duc D’Orleans. It is presumed that he was from Genoa, and he disappears from history after a Concert spiritual in 1728. What is known is that he was trained at one of the conservatories in Naples, and by 1703 he had moved permanently to Paris, where he served the Regent under Charles-Hubert Gervais. There is, however, a portrait of him by no less a person than Watteau, which shows him to have been a rather serious, contemplative type with prominent spectacles (and the usual long wig); in other words, a 17th-century nerd. He caused no controversy, was a serious collaborator with Gervais and other composers on a super-friendly basis, and performed regularly but without inciting the sort of passion for which the French court musicians and connoisseurs were known at that time.

His music is all but unknown, and he might well have been a completely forgotten name were it not for a set of four works based upon poems entitled Les quatres saisons . Which of course, brings us to his polar opposite, Antonio Vivaldi, a man with overweening ego, a habit of shameless self-promotion, and whose life was marked by scandal and prominence. In other words, precisely the opposite sort of person than Guido, but one whose Quattro Stagioni has entered the realm of musical icons. Given the disparity between these two, it has often been regarded (when thought of at all) that Guido decided to imitate his more famous contemporary’s popular violin concertos, first published in 1725 but composed several years earlier. Now, however, research has demonstrated that Guido’s works were written as early as 1716, possibly predating Vivaldi by several years, with the implication that the famous master may have cribbed the idea from his reticent colleague, and perhaps some of the musical ideas as well. I don’t intend to enter this possibly tortuous debate, but what is apparent here is that Guido’s four compositions, entitled Scherzi armonici (and not concertos), provide the antipodes to Vivaldi’s often flamboyant concertos.

The works are based upon four anonymous poems that apparently inspired Watteau to produce four images that were often reproduced in engraved form at the time. The poetry is solid and pictorial, with Spring noting how the birds begin to return, the trumpets sound for war, and the various peasants celebrate the promise of the year; Summer noting the blossoming of a bountiful harvest, the fauns and nymphs dancing about, and thunderstorms brewing; Fall celebrating the harvest (particularly of grapes) and the hunt; and Winter depicting ice, snow, furious winds that ravage the earth, the approach of old age (metaphorically speaking), and the celebration of the returning warriors to festive balls and even more venal pleasures. For Guido, these were just the sort of elements that allowed him to juxtapose both the French and Italian styles in his musical renditions.

It would be a mistake to call these concertos, for they are more like multi-movement suites, though with the caveat that the typical baroque suite is left far behind. Indeed, as the poetry unfolds, the movements are like miniature tableaux, in which one element blends smoothly with the next. For example, the musette of “Spring” features the emphatic drone of the lower strings, which then moves directly into a less obvious peasant dance. In “Fall,” the strings sound very much like hunting horns, and when the stag attempts to flee, it does so with a series of fast trills that agitate the melodic line before the final plaintive death chords. In “Winter” the poetic stanza about old age has the violins creeping along with halting chords, breaking into a set of dotted rhythms for the march entrance of the warriors. In the thunderstorm in “Summer,” the strings rush about with tremolos and skirling figurations that are wild and untamed musically. One could go on, but this is the anti-Vivaldi, a sort of characteristic work that focuses upon the drama rather than the soloist, upon the pictorial elements of the poetry, and not the obvious sorts of word-painting that one finds in the Venetian composer. This makes the issue of who came up with this idea somewhat moot, for they are two very different works, and this despite what are sometimes striking musical phrases that are, ahem, parallel.

This is not the first time that these works have been recorded, for in 2004 L’arte dell’Arco released both on a single disc for CPO. The Band of Instruments, an early music group from Oxford University, has chosen to let the Guido stand on its own, thereby separating the works of the two composers to avoid the comparisons that would inevitably arise. As to their performance, director Roger Hamilton runs a very tight ship, with good contrasting tempos, nice phrasing, and an ensemble that is very much in tune. Their performance is well executed and I can find no fault with it. Where I do have a quibble is with the track indexing. Each of the pieces is given its own track, but the clear movement divisions are merely indicated as “the starting point of each section.” In this day and age, it would have been simple to do multiple tracks, instead of making the listener have to hear them all at one go and making them clock-watchers. Also, the poems are given only in the original French in the booklet, which makes them less useful if one doesn’t speak the language. Still, if you can put up with this, you will be treated to a first-rate performance of works that really do deserve to be more popular, even if they have to contend with an icon.

—Bertil van Boer