This disc seems to have fairly and squarely divided
critical opinion, and it’s easy to see (or hear) why. For a start,
almost every lover of classical music will have at least one (or
possibly many) favourite versions of these much-loved masterpieces.
This does tend to set up a certain bias, whether conscious or
not, and makes any new version, especially one with ‘historically
aware’ practices in mind, have a disadvantage from the start.
Actually, neither of these new concerto recordings
has what might be anticipated as the expected ‘problems’; tempos
are pretty straight, even relaxed in outer movements, and while
slow movements move on, they never undermine the lyricism or character.
I fully expected a much brisker speed in the first movements of
both concertos, and whilst they are not sluggish, they are certainly
not controversial. What they do possess is a marvellous inner
energy. One recognises straightaway the traits that make Gardiner’s
interpretations difficult to ignore; exceptional rhythmic vitality,
attention to woodwind lines and a real feeling of discovery, making
the music come up fresh as new paint.
In this he is helped, of course, by a soloist
who shares his convictions. Mullova has been accused of being
too cool in the past, but that very refusal to romanticise (or
sentimentalise, particularly in the Mendelssohn) suits Gardiner’s
approach completely, and her crystal clear, gut-stringed instrument
provides the perfect compliment to the period band.
What the opening of the Beethoven may lack in
the last ounce of mystery is more than compensated for with a
blend of urgency and cleanly shaped lyricism. It may well be that
the lack of vibrato on the wind and strings, as well as the leather
and stick drums, bothers some, but there is no doubting the strength
of the line and the clarity of the harmonic argument. Anyone who
knows Gardiner’s Beethoven symphony cycle will know what to expect;
wonderfully explosive tuttis, very tightly controlled ensemble
work and those marvellous period woodwind and brass piercing the
string texture and making you sit up and notice lines you never
heard before. This is period Beethoven at its best. The pulse
is rock steady, with the ‘ma non troppo’ marking clearly influencing
speeds. Mullova’s intonation and tone are spot-on, as is her virtuosity,
and the partnership is very much on the same wavelength.
The larghetto sings its song in the same unfussy,
direct manner, though here some listeners may hanker for their
old favourites. I did a quick comparison with one of my current
front runners (Hilary Hahn with Zinman and the Baltimore S.O.)
and found that their tiny degree of give-and-take did pay dividends,
though Mullova and Gardiner’s sheer intensity and rapt concentration
are mightily effective. The finale is again not too quick but
carries the same degree of tautness and sprung rhythmic force
that the music requires. New cadenzas by Ottavio Dantone are okay
but do little to advance our understanding of the piece, and are
certainly no better than the Kreisler cadenzas used by Hahn and
The Mendelssohn is an even finer performance.
Once again one is brought up short by the quite measured speeds,
but both musicians really take note of the composer’s first movement
marking of ‘molto appassionato’. Mendelssohn’s beautifully crafted
orchestration really glitters with period instruments and time
and again I noted passages that simply came alive in their hands.
The lead into the famous andante is superbly handled, with even
the tiniest hairpin dynamics observed. Textual differences are
more apparent in this piece than the Beethoven but don’t amount
to anything too radical, the odd grace noted ironed out, some
ornamentation altered etc. The finale proper is not quite as fast
as Hahn and Zinman but has a rhythmic buoyancy that is wholly
This strikes me as the sort of disc that will
irritate as many as it will thrill. I definitely fall into the
latter camp, as I love having the cobwebs blown off familiar works,
and like to be challenged as a listener. The recording quality
is superb, full and warm. Excellent notes are by Richard Wigmore.
Anyone not already won over by period practice should try before
they buy, but Gardiner fans will need no persuading.