An Italian baroque composer writes four picturesque concertos for string ensemble depicting ‘The Four Seasons’. Each of the four short concertos is accompanied by a descriptive poem outlining the events in the music. The set starts with spring and concludes with winter. The composer’s name is Giovanni Antonio Guido.
Hah! Surprised? Giovanni Antonio Guido’s ‘Four Seasons’ were probably composed around 1716-1717, at around the time Vivaldi was probably writing his. Very little is known about the composer; in fact, his name, which is a weird combination of three first names, is such because he apparently alternated between calling himself ‘Giovanni Antonio’ and ‘Giovanni Guido’. The result is a trail of archival mystery, although we can be certain that he composed these works in France. His death date is “after 1728”.
Guido’s concertos are far less melody-driven than Vivaldi’s, and more episodic; they’re more like baroque suites. Each concerto is divided up into 8-12 sections instead of just three. Thus in spring we get a brief nightfall, a depiction of birdcalls, ‘Air de trompette’ and a concluding dance. Like Vivaldi, Guido ends his summer with a “violent storm”, but he also includes a dance of the fauns, an appearance by the goddess Ceres (Demeter), a “minuet of the nymphs” and a minute-long cameo for cuckoos. Structure is rare; once an idea is given, we move on to the next.
Some of them are very striking, and every so often I lunge for the booklet to see what fun thing just happened. The faux trumpet fanfare in Spring, given by violins, is vivid, much more so than a birdcall episode which is noticeably lacking in anything like birdsong. Immediately after the trumpets, the string ensemble strikes up a shockingly good imitation of bagpipes. It’s amusing to hear the cuckoo-call woven into a very standard baroque tune – and to hear a very cuckoo-like call used when Ceres arrives. Autumn ends with a very striking death scene and one of the few instances of a previous theme returning.
Not everything stacks up. Guido’s summer storm is a lot cheerier and, well, sunnier than Vivaldi’s, although it’s just as fast and virtuosic. The Winter concerto is so genial that I completely missed the “war march”.
Still, you shouldn’t necessarily compare this with Vivaldi. These aren’t virtuoso violin concertos, they’re suites for a small ensemble of highly skilled string players who exchange solos and duets. They’re much more specific in program but more abstract in musical content. They almost never stray into minor key. They’re a whole lot of fun, and the extremely talented players who make up The Band of Instruments are a pleasure to hear. I’m now tempted to seek out their other recordings.
So I say adjust your expectations and dive in. These Four Seasons are not at all like those . They are a set of fun, vivacious, diverting baroque suites, and they are very skilfully played. Why this 2004 recording took so long to arrive on CD beats me.
The only caveat I have about this very enjoyable enterprise is that if you want to follow along to the musical program or read the poems, you’ll need to know French. The poems aren’t translated and neither are the movement names. The seasons themselves are given peculiar names, perhaps reflective of 18 th -century spelling (“L’este” for “L’été”). On the other hand, maybe Giovanni Antonio Guido’s years in France weren’t enough to make him fluent. They were certainly enough to provide us with some very fun music.