If listeners had to commit to a single version of Vivaldi's Four Seasons for the rest of their lives, this 1984 BIS recording would be thoroughly satisfying choice. Superbly played, brilliantly recorded period instrument performances of this perennial masterpiece are all but a dime a dozen, and the differences between Hogwood's and Pinnock's and Harnoncourt's readings don't begin to make up for the fatal boredom of their performances. This version with Nils-Erik Sparf and the Drottningholm Court Baroque Ensemble would be an ideal choice because theirs is the freshest performance of the piece. Beyond their excellent technique and impeccable sense of style, Sparf and the Swedish musicians bring joy and enthusiasm to the music, and sound like they are in turn receiving happiness and energy from the music. There's real pleasure here, and real affection, as if the concertos were newly composed and these were their world premieres. Filled out with witty accounts of Vivaldi's F major Concerto for Bassoon and his G minor Concerto for Flute and Bassoon, this disc is a delight.
Karajan could be so expressive, with the big sound of the Berlin Philharmonic, in Vivaldi's very famous Magnum Opus. Solo violinist Michel Schwalbe is also terrific, quiet and bold alternately, as needed.
Director and violinist Amandine Beyer acknowledges in her booklet notes for this disc that the world may not seem to need another recording of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, but then she tops the bar she has set up by delivering an entirely distinctive reading of the work. Her version, with the Italian historical-instrument group Gli Incogniti (who are not quite as unknown as all that), is as strikingly revisionist as the various turbo-powered, operatic Vivaldi recordings that began coming out of Italy in the 1990s, but it is different in flavor. In her own words, Beyer seeks "lightweight forces and freedom of phrasing." The group is small, with microphones put down right in the middle, and you hear lots of internal lines and interplay rather than contrast between orchestra and soloist.
This EMI release of The Four Seasons gives violinist Sarah Chang top billing (as would be expected) and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra a smaller, less significant listing. As far as the quality of performance goes, however, Orpheus should absolutely be considered the star of this recording with Chang getting the footnote instead. This is simply not the case; from the ridiculously posed glamour photos filling the liner notes to the balance of the performance itself, this album is all about Chang. The most fulfilling aspects are the orchestral tuttis. Orpheus is truly at its best here, playing with as much energy and passion as the much ballyhooed recording with the Venice Baroque Orchestra.