Critical Notes Series: Vivaldi's Cello Concertos

As we survey the standard cello repertoire in the baroque period we find that the concerto genre is often overlooked. Violinists have Bach's 2 solo concertos and a double concerto as well as Vivaldi's Four Seasons, and a handful of other concertos. The standard cello concerto repertoire seems to start with Haydn's C-major concerto, maybe C.P.E. Bach's A-major concerto.

Vivaldi composed at least 25 solo concertos, a double cello concerto, and several other concerto-grosso-style concertos that involve the cello as a soloist. These works span from the simple, first-position concerto to the complex, advanced-level concertos in the vein of Haydn, Boccherini, and C.P.E. Bach.

I would like to present Vivaldi's 25 solo concertos, as well as the "Double" Concerto in a graded fashion, with the hope that my readers would include these beautiful works in their repertoires and teaching curricula. The links are to my new Urtext editions of these works; the first link is to the unmarked score/solo/orchestra part set to be used in performance, and the second is to the piano reduction/Urtext solo/marked solo set to be used in teaching. 

Each entry will include the RV number, key, grade level (based on ASTA), clefs used, the link to the editions, and a brief introduction to the work.

 

RV 399
C major
Grade: 1
Highest position used: 1
Clef(s): bass
Other features: simple string crossings; short solo sections
Edition links: Orchestra; Piano
About the work: Vivaldi's RV 399 cello concerto is perfect for a student who is finishing up Suzuki Book 1. The entire concerto may be played in the first position (second position is optional). The outer movements are filled with excitement. The slow movement is accompanied only by basso continuo, making it sound like a sonata.

 

RV 412  
F major    
Grade: 2   
Highest position used: 2; 3 (sparingly)  
Clef(s): bass  
Edition links: Orchestra; Piano  
About the work: Vivaldi's RV 412 is a joyful and simple work, reminiscent of Autumn of the Four Seasons. The similar melody to the finale ritornello is also used in "Tecum principium" from Dixit Dominus, RV 807.

 

RV 398 
C major  
Grade: 2 
Highest position used: 3 
Clef(s): bass 
Other features: syncopations 
Edition links: Orchestra; Piano  
About the work: Vivaldi's RV 398 cello concerto is perfect for a student who is finishing up Suzuki Book 2. The first movement is based on an interesting rhythm, which is introduced by the imitation between the violins in the ritornello. The second movement is accompanied only by the basso continuo, making it sound like a sonata. The finale is a graceful minuet. 

 

RV 406
D minor 
Grade: 2
Highest position used: 3 (first movement, with brief 4 in mm. 61-63); 2 (second and third movements)
Clef(s): bass
Other features: string crossings; in the first movement, the soloist is required to play the ritornello obbligato parts in mm. 4-8 and 75-79.
Edition links: Orchestra; Piano       
About the work: The first movement of Vivaldi's RV 406 concerto was also used in his bassoon concerto RV 481. The slow movement is accompanied by unison strings and the finale is a minuet with 3 variations.

 

RV 403
D major
Grade: 2
Highest position used: 3
Clef(s): bass
Other features: dotted rhythms (hooked bowing)
Edition links: Orchestra; Piano
About the work: Vivaldi's RV 403 cello concerto is a quintessential D-major work, emanating exuberance. The opening is regal with dotted rhythms. The slow movement is accompanied only by the basso continuo, making it sound like a sonata.

 

RV 411
F major
Grade: 3
Highest position used: 4 (A harmonic)
Clef(s): bass and tenor 
Edition links: Orchestra; Piano
About the work: Vivaldi's RV 411 cello concerto is the shortest in the composer's cello concerto output. 

 

RV 416
G minor
Grade: 3
Highest position used: 4
Clef(s): bass and tenor
Other features: syncopations in the first movement
Edition links: Orchestra; Piano
About the work: Vivaldi's RV 416 cello concerto begins with an off-kilter dotted rhythm that pervades the entire first movement. The second movement is in binary form, accompanied only by the basso continuo. The finale is an exciting courante with imitation in the violins during the ritornellos. 

 

RV 407
D minor  
Grade: 3
Highest position used: 4; 5 in m. 15 (approached stepwise)
Clef(s): bass and tenor
Other features: string crossings 
Edition links: Orchestra; Piano
About the work: Vivaldi's RV 407 concerto begins with an energetic canon between the violins. The soloist is required to play the obbligato part for the first 7 bars. The notation of these bars is shorthand and may be interpreted as printed or with alternating 16th notes between the D and A strings. The slow movement is a sarabande over a unison ground bass. The finale is an exciting gigue in binary form.

 

RV 410
F major
Grade: 3 
Highest position used: 4 (A harmonic)
Clef(s): bass and tenor
Other features: the finale has challenging sixteenth-note-triplet passage work.
Edition links: Orchestra; Piano
About the work: Vivaldi's RV 410 opens with a syncopated interplay between the violins. The slow movement is marked "a piacimento" (to one's pleasure) for the soloist and is accompanied only by the basso continuo. The finale also has syncopations in the ritornellos. 

 

RV 422
A minor  
Grade: 3
Highest position used: 4 (A harmonic)
Clef(s): bass and tenor
Edition links: Orchestra; Piano
About the work: Vivaldi's RV 422 concerto is arguably the most well-known solo cello concerto by the composer. This work appears in many collections of concertos for students around the world. The solo part is not as varied with regards to technique as other Vivaldi concertos of this difficulty level. The first movement ritornellos have an interesting interplay between the violins. The second movement is accompanied only by the basso continuo, making it sound like a sonata. Much of the finale has unison strings, so the energy comes mostly from rhythm and tempo. A part of the finale is also used in the RV 333 violin concerto and RV 491 bassoon concerto finales.

 

RV 421
A minor 
Grade: 3 
Highest position used: 4 (A harmonic)
Clef(s): bass and tenor
Other features: the soloist imitates lute/guitar tremolo in mm. 40-50 of the finale.
Edition links: Orchestra; Piano
About the work: Vivaldi's RV 421 cello concerto begins with a slower first movement with imitative violins. Vivaldi inserts a half measure in order to realign the phrase in the first movement m. 33. The slow movement is accompanied only by the basso continuo, where the melodic line is similar to the third movement of cello sonata RV 45. The finale brings excitement with syncopations.

 

RV 419
A minor
Grade: 3
Highest position used: 4 (A harmonic); 6 (first movement, m. 29 is approached linearly)
Clef(s): bass and tenor
Edition links: Orchestra; Piano
About the work: Vivaldi's RV 419 is one of five cello concertos he composed in A minor. The first-movement ritornellos are driven by the motivic motor in the bass. The tranquil slow movement is accompanied by an off-beat basso continuo. The finale is an exciting ground-bass-variation minuet. The special feature in the finale is the tremolo in the solo and violin II parts.

 

RV 420
A minor 
Grade: 3
Highest position used: 4 (A harmonic)
Clef(s): bass and tenor
Other features: large string crossings
Edition links: Orchestra; Piano
About the work: Vivaldi's RV 420 cello concerto is one of five A-minor work he composed in the genre. The concerto begins with an Andante movement and a cello solo, not the typical orchestra ritornello. It is one of the most unified and thematically developed movements in Vivaldi's output. Each solo section is punctuated with a short ritornello over a basso lamento. The second movement is a solemn Adagio where the soloist plays an obbligato part with large string crossings during the ritornellos. The finale is an exciting courante that shares some cello techniques with Bach's C-major Suite. 

 

RV 402 
C minor     
Grade: 3 
Highest position used: 4; 5 in mm. 77-78 of the first movement. 
Clef(s): bass and tenor
Other features: the ritornellos in the finale feature the soloist 
Edition links: Orchestra; Piano
About the work: Vivaldi's RV 402 shares much of the pathos of its C-minor sibling, RV 401. The first movement ritornellos rely on imitation at the unison between the violins for its energy. The slow movement is a tranquil sarabande and the finale a sturdy minuet. Both the slow movement and finale are in binary form with repeats. 

 

RV 409 
E minor 
Grade: 3  
Highest position used: 4; 5 (sparingly in outer movements)   
Clef(s): bass and tenor
Edition links: Orchestra; Piano
About the work: Vivaldi's RV 409 is a unique work in the composer's cello concerto oeuvre; the continuo part is prescribed to the bassoon, in the first movement explicitly and in the others implicitly. In the first movement, the solo portions are Adagio, punctuated by short, Allegro ritornellos. The second movement is the opposite, with the solo passages having an Allegro marking, while the short ritornellos Adagio. The finale is a standard Allegro ritornello form.

 

RV 408
E-flat major   
Grade: 3   
Highest position used: 4; 5 (sparingly) 
Clef(s): bass and tenor
Other features: fast passagework in the finale
Edition links: Orchestra; Piano
About the work: Vivaldi's RV 408 is the only one of his cello concertos in E-flat major. The outer movements of this work are full of joy. The syncopated bass line of the first movement makes it even more exciting. A very similar ritornello is used in the opening movement of the RV 259 violin concerto. The solemn slow movement is accompanied only by the basso continuo, making it sound like a sonata. This movement is in C minor but briefly moves to B-flat minor in its more chromatic passage. The melody of this movement is also used in the opening movement of the RV 12 violin sonata. The finale is a springy minuet with a few challenging shifts in mm. 26-34. The key signature has only 2 flats, one of the ways of notating the E-flat-major key signature in the baroque period.

 

RV 417
G minor 
Grade: 3
Highest position used: 4; A harmonic
Clef(s): bass and tenor
Edition links: Orchestra; Piano
About the work: Vivaldi's RV 417 is among the more frequently played of the composer's cello concertos. The first movement solo sections are on the shorter side. The slow movement only has the basso continuo for the accompaniment, resembling Vivaldi's sonatas, even sharing the key of B-flat major with three of the sonatas. The finale is a fiery Courante, with almost a Spanish flair; a part of this movement's ritornello is also used in "Se il cor guerriero" from Tito Manlio, RV 738.

 

RV 405 
D minor 
Grade: 3 
Highest position used: 5; 6 and 7 are used sparingly in the first 2 movements 
Clef(s): bass and tenor 
Edition links: Orchestra; Piano
About the work: Vivaldi's RV 405 concerto has two fast movements in triple time. The soloist foreshadows the tutti of the finale in mm. 26-31 of the first movement. The tuttis have exciting rhythms.

 

RV 401
C minor   
Grade: 3  
Highest position used: 5; 6 and 7 are used only in mm. 61-63 in the finale
Clef(s): bass and tenor
Other features: advanced string crossings; fast passage work
Edition links: Orchestra; Piano
About the work: Vivaldi's RV 401 includes some of the most beautiful harmonies the composer wrote. The tempos are generally slower in comparison to other concertos by Vivaldi. This work requires a high skill level to play the fast passages and string crossing. The first movement is also used as a slow movement (Larghetto) to the RV 189 violin concerto and has melodic similarity to the RV 40 cello sonata opening movement. The viola and violin 2 parts double each other throughout. 

 

RV 423
B-flat major  
Grade: 3   
Highest position used: 4; 5 and 6 (approached stepwise) briefly used (mm. 82-85) along with the thumb (m. 84) in the first movement
Clef(s): bass and tenor
Edition links: Orchestra; Piano
About the work: Vivaldi's RV 423 cello concerto is a joyful work where the ritornellos punctuate the solo sections, as well as play their normal role of the "tutti" sections. The slow movement is a lamenting sarabande. The finale is a corrente in binary form. A part of the finale is used in the Corrente movement of the RV 20 (Op. 2, No. 4) violin sonata.

 

RV 531 (for 2 cellos)
G minor 
Grade: 4
Highest position used: 6 (cello 1); 4 (cello 2)
Clef(s): bass and tenor
Other features: string crossings; extensions (first movement); rhythm (third movement)
Edition links: Orchestra; Piano
About the work: Vivaldi's RV 531 concerto for 2 cellos, also known as Vivaldi's Double Concerto has become very popular, in part because it is included in the Suzuki Method. The first movement is full of imitation and storm-like passages. The slow movement is solemn, written in the trio-sonata style. The finale is a lively courante. Although both soloists have the opportunity to play melodic material, the cello I part is markedly more difficult in the first movement, going up to the sixth position once and often having the higher part than cello II.

 

RV 414
G major  
Grade: 4
Highest position used: 4 (movements 1 and 2); thumb position (third movement, D5)
Clef(s): bass and tenor
Edition links: Orchestra; Piano
About the work: Vivaldi's RV 414 cello concerto likely started its life as his flute concerto RV 438. Some clues in the solo part could lead one to believe that this work was conceived for a 5-stringed cello, especially some of the more awkward passages in the first movement, in addition to the range in the finale. The first two movements have more of a Handelian sound, and the finale has a sound one commonly associates with Vivaldi.

 

RV 413
G major  
Grade: 4
Highest position used: thumb position (first movement D5); 4 with A harmonic (second and third movements)
Clef(s): bass and tenor
Edition links: Orchestra; Piano
About the work: Vivaldi's RV 413 cello concerto is one of the composer's most forward-looking cello working, foreshadowing Boccherini's style. The concerto begins with an exciting, sixteenth-note bass line, pervasive in all of the first-movement ritornellos, however, most of the solo sections are accompanied by the upper strings a style Boccherini adopted. The second movement is an aria, introduced by unison strings. The finale also featured continuously moving sixteenth notes. The bass accompanies more of this movement. 

There are some clues in the solo part that could lead one to believe that this work was conceived for a 5-stringed cello. However, even with the D5 being the highest note, the high position work lies very well in the left hand, like a Boccherini concerto of average difficulty. 

Another unique feature of this piece in Vivaldi's cello repertoire is the pervasive use of the echo of small melodic fragments in the ritornellos, F-P-PP in the outer movements and F-P in the middle movement. These present the listener with imagery of being in the hills.

 

RV 400
C major  
Grade: 4 
Highest position used: thumb position (first movement, D5); 5 (second and third movements)
Clef(s): bass and tenor
Other features: advanced string crossings
Edition links: Orchestra; Piano
About the work: Vivaldi's RV 400 cello concerto is a joyful work that requires ample technique and finesse. The first movement opens with an interplay between the violins, also used as the ritornello of the finale of the RV 286 violin concerto. The slow movement is a tranquil sarabande, accompanied only by the basso continuo, making it sound like a sonata. This movement is also found crossed out in the autograph of the RV 181 violin concerto (Giordano 29, f.93 verso). Interestingly, the solo part of this movement is in tenor clef in the violin-concerto manuscript. The cello-concerto finale is a sturdy minuet. Many of the techniques used in this concerto are also found in Bach's C-major cello suite.

 

RV 418
A minor  
Grade: 4 
Highest position used: 3 
Clef(s): bass, tenor and treble
Edition links: Orchestra; Piano
About the work: Vivaldi's RV 418 is one of his more technically involved cello concertos. Some passages suggest that this work may have been written for a five-stringed cello, although it is not explicitly stated in the source. The highest note is an F5 in the finale. All high passages are approached stepwise, making the solo part comfortable to play. The opening movement is a lively courante. The slow movement is one of Vivaldi's most haunting, almost reminiscent of Stravinsky's Apollon Musagète in its modernity. The finale has a very similar melodic contour to Vivaldi's E-minor cello sonata, the second movement.

 

RV 424
B minor  
Grade: 4 
Highest position used: thumb position (first movement); 6 (second movement); 7 (third movement)
Clef(s): bass, tenor and treble
Edition links: Orchestra; Piano
About the work: Vivaldi's RV 424 is one of his more technically involved cello concertos. The soloist is required to play an F#5. All of the high positions are always approached stepwise, making the solo part very comfortable to play. The ritornellos on the outer movements include voice crossings in the violins and violas, making for an interesting texture. The slow movement is accompanied only by the basso continuo, with a sound of a sonata. This slow movement is one of the more rhythmically complex pieces by Vivaldi.

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