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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

‘We are at an important moment in the morality of music,’ says Italian violinist Fabio Biondi

Celebrated baroque specialist Fabio Biondi on why The Four Seasons has nothing to do with the weather – and why Stravinsky may have been right in dismissing Vivaldi's masterwork.
Italian musician Fabio Biondi. Iguana Press /Redferns / Getty Images
Italian musician Fabio Biondi. Iguana Press /Redferns / Getty Images

Fabio Biondi does not want you to visit Dubai Opera on Tuesday to hear him play – but rather, to hear what he is playing. This distinction is greater than you might think.

“We are at an important moment in the morality of music – in the past five years I see a vulgarity,” says the Italian violinist, as he launches into a 10-minute tirade that could easily be interpreted as a rebuke of many fellow famous virtuosos.

“When you see the publicity, what is important is to be beautiful or strange. We’re not a rock performance. We are not auteurs – we make an interpretation, we serve the music with our capacity.

“Today, I constantly see musicians using the music to show their talent. This is completely wrong. We must not forget that the music is first, the composer is first – and then we follow.

“The audience [who] come to the shop and ask for the latest record by Fabio Biondi or Joshua Bell, and don’t care what music you play – that’s really horrible.”

Most surprisingly, perhaps, Biondi makes this bold declaration, as he prepares to present perhaps the least conspicuous piece of music ever heard – The Four Seasons, Antonio Vivaldi’s omnipresent, much-derided set of themed concerti, familiar from elevators and call-centre hold loops the world over.

A specialist in baroque music, Biondi’s long association with Vivaldi’s calling card stretches back nearly three decades to his first recording in 1989 – a year before he founded the 15-piece Europa Galante, which he will present in Dubai.

But despite playing an Andrea Guarneri violin from 1686, Biondi is anything but a traditionalist. He dismisses outright the perceived notion that the four concerti represent seasonal climatic variations, despite Vivaldi publishing the work in 1725 with accompanying, uncredited, sonnets (many suppose they are the composer’s own work).

“I don’t believe in the relation between The Four Seasons and nature – this music is not made as a real imitation of the natural birds, rivers, everything,” says Biondi. “It’s obvious that Vivaldi thinks this because it was a fantastic market goal at this time.

“What I feel in this music is not nature, but the four seasons of humanity. In the music you can find a brilliant number of emotions: love, fear, sadness – it’s a kaleidoscope of human feeling. Maybe this is the reason this piece has survived even today, so you can hear it in the supermarket.”

Marketing trick or not, The Four Seasons endures more than perhaps any other work of the pre-1750 baroque period.

It is so overused it even spawned its own overused sound bite: Igor Stravinsky’s mythically pompous assertion that the prolific Vivaldi did not, in fact, compose 400 concertos – but “the same concerto 400 times”. Biondi brings this quote up, so I don’t have to – and he agrees. What kind of earnest baroquian are we dealing with? One who thinks we’ve been playing it wrong all along.

“When you listen to Vivaldi, sometimes you think Stravinsky is right,” says Biondi.

“The problem: in one way this music is exciting, virtuoso and fine. But in another way... the music is very poor, and you can’t find a big counterpoint – the harmony is not always that interesting.

“In every moment you try to find the character of this music – looking for every little detail, thinking a lot about the colour.”

The error – and therefore Stravinsky’s criticism – says Biondi, is in contemporary interpretation, which typically lacks the era’s intended dynamics and articulation.

It is one he has spent 30 years trying to put right, utilising a mix of ornamentation, studious research and vintage instrumentation to present the music with the lively, improvisational flair that was intended.

Yet after three decades of investigation “like a doctor”, his diagnosis is not yet complete.

After more than 200 performances, Biondi says he still plays The Four Seasons differently “moment by moment, night by night” – the repetition of these 37 minutes of music is never boring.

“Every time we have a request to play The Four Seasons, I’m so happy,” says Biondi.

“It is our mascot – we feel we are a family, and we recognise The Four Seasons as our flag.”

• Europa Galante perform at Dubai Opera on Tuesday at 8pm. Ticket prices start at Dh200 from www.dubaiopera.com

� rgarratt@thenational.ae