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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Sinfonia concertante in E flat major for Violin and Viola, K364 (1779) [31:58]
Violin Concerto No. 4 in D major, K218 (1775) [24:15]
Violin Concerto No. 2 in D major, K211 (1775) [21:55]
UBS Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra/Maxim Vengerov (violin)
Lawrence Power (viola) (K364)
rec. 9-11 February 2006, Henry Wood Hall, London, England (K211); 16-18 August 2006, Salle Métropole, Lausanne, Switzerland (K218, K364). DDD
EMI CLASSICS 378374-2 [78:52]


Maxim Vengerov directs from the violin the young players of the UBS Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra in this first volume of his project to record all Mozart’s Violin Concertos in two years. It was not too long ago that I had the privilege of attending Vengerov’s Bridgewater Hall, Manchester recital when he performed all three of the Brahms Violin Sonatas. An event that was one of the very few occasions when I felt I was in the presence of a true musical genius. 

The award-winning Vengerov has returned from his much publicised sabbatical to record Mozart’s second and fourth Violin Concertos and the Sinfonia concertante. Clearly Vengerov has not been putting his feet up and sunbathing on some Mediterranean beach. He has been studying intensively, working with star Italian mezzo, Cecilia Bartoli and also with the eminent early music specialists Trevor Pinnock and Rachel Podger. Although using modern instruments one senses that Vengerov, with these controlled and unforced readings, has approached the concertos conscious of his recently gained insights into historical informed performance practice. The talented Vengerov has afforded himself the “indulgence” of employing his own cadenzas as his “personal reaction” to Mozart’s music.

For many years it was generally thought that Mozart had composed his series of five Violin Concertos in 1775 during his engagement as composer of the court orchestra of Archbishop Colloredo of Salzburg. It is not certain if the set was intended for his own use or for Salzburg court orchestra leader Antonio Brunetti. Evidently the concertos were also played in Salzburg by Johann Anton Kolb, for whom Leopold Mozart implies one of the concertos had been written.

Vengerov acknowledges that, “The second and the fourth Violin Concertos are in the same key (D major), but they are so different, have such different messages.” There are only a few months between the composition dates of Mozart’s two D major Concertos. Mozart completed his Concerto No. 2 in D major, K211 in the June of 1775, scoring it for the usual orchestra of oboes, horns and strings.

Vengerov states, “the earlier of the two concertos was a special revelation. The slow movement, in particular, strikes me as a miraculous synthesis of the young Mozart and a new kind of emotional intensity that he would go on to explore in the larger concertos that followed.” Displaying his undoubted admiration for the score Vengerov is of the view that, “The Second is minimalist, its experimental writing but it creates magic. It's a dialogue, an intimate conversation. It's opera without words.” 

As Vengerov has commented, the Concerto No. 4 in D major, K218 together with the A major Concerto, K219 are grander in scale than their three predecessors. Composed in October of 1775 I greatly admire the final movement Rondo of K218 with both a gigue and a gavotte. I was somewhat taken by surprise by the approach here, rather expecting generous amounts of characteristic vitality and excitement. Here Vengerov has charted a middle-ground, avoiding the extrovert Fabio Biondi-like dash and brilliance in the Allegros and the intense emotional insights of Viktoria Mullova in the Andantes. I especially enjoyed Vengerov’s interpretations of the Andante movements where his deeply sympathetic melodic line is gentle and controlled, charming but comparatively introverted. 

There are a large number of recordings of Mozart’s Violin Concertos in the catalogues. I have provided, as a rough guide, a list of the more established sets that are likely to be encountered: Arthur Grumiaux with the LSO under Sir Colin Davis on Philips; Itzhak Perlman with the BPO on EMI; Takako Nishizaki with the Capella Istropolitana under Stephen Gunzenhauser on Naxos; Anne-Sophie Mutter with the BPO under Herbert von Karajan on Deutsche Grammophon; Anne-Sophie Mutter with the LPO on Deutsche Grammophon; Monica Huggett and the OAE on Virgin Classics; Simon Standage and the AAM under Christopher Hogwood on L’Oiseau-Lyre; Henryk Szeryng with the ASMF under Neville Marriner on Philips; Itzhak Perlman with the VPO under James Levine on Deutsche Grammophon; Pamela Frank with the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra under David Zinman on Arte Nova; Cho-Liang Lin with the ECO under Raymond Leppard on Sony; Yehudi Menuhin with the Bath Festival Orchestra on EMI Seraphim and Thomas Zehetmair with the Philharmonia Orchestra on Warner Classics Apex. 

Another recently recorded set of the complete Mozart Violin Concertos now receiving immense attention but which I have yet to hear, is from Julia Fischer with the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra under Yakov Kreizberg on PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 064 (K216; K218; Adagio K.261; Rondo K269) and PTC 5186 094 (K207; K211; K219). 

For those wanting just one disc but not the complete set of the concertos the field is dominated by two versions, both on period-instruments, from Viktoria Mullova on Philips and Fabio Biondi on Virgin Classics. 

Mullova performs and directs her wonderful interpretations of Violin Concertos Nos. 1, 3 and 4 with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on Philips 470 292-2. Recorded in 2001 in London, Mullova’s exciting, stylish and characterful interpretations made a huge impression on me. Playing a ‘Jules Falk’ Stradivarius (1723) with gut strings and using a period bow, Mullova’s remarkable playing at certain points on the release made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

With exhilarating, explosive and thought-provoking performances of the first three concertos Fabio Biondi performs and directs Europe Galante, recorded in 2005 in San Marcello, Italy on Virgin Classics 3447062. Europa Galante are one of the very finest and most exciting ensembles that have come to prominence in the authentic-instrument scene in the last ten years or so. Not a performance for the traditionalist Mozartian, Biondi provides a most individual interpretation playing with a strong sense of expressive freedom. He imaginatively and bravely chooses to provide exciting and energetic playing with an often biting attack; a risky approach that comes off with sheer perfection. Biondi never loses his innate style and artistry with strongly dramatic and colourful playing that comes across with the spontaneity of a live performance, rather than mad-cap recklessness.

For the listener who prefers modern instrument performances the leading complete set is unequivocally that from Arthur Grumiaux and the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis on Philips 438 323-2 (plus Adagio and Rondo for violin and orchestra, K261 & K373; Sinfonia concertante, K364). These evergreens are wonderfully satisfying, being especially beautifully played with an abundance of vivacity and expression, together with an appealing purity of tone. Grumiaux made the recordings in London, 1961-64 and the forty year old sound quality, in their digital transfers, stands up remarkably well.

The Sinfonia concertante K364 was composed in Salzburg during the summer of 1779 following Mozart’s return from Paris where he had evidently been inspired by his visit to Mannheim. This substantial three movement score may have been intended for performance by violinist Antonio Brunetti and violist Joseph Hafender.

With its remarkably full and rich orchestration it deserves to be better known. Described by Volker Scherliess as being, “distinguished by its wealth of melodic invention,” the score is more technically complex than its outward charm would suggest. It is hard to fault the sensitive interpretation by Vengerov and Power. Their playing in the Allegro maestoso seems to emerge from the orchestra rather than display virtuosic domination. The Andante is particularly delectable with the interplay between the violin and viola conveying the intimacy of a private conversation. In the closing Presto the duo shun extrovert tendencies with playing of a controlled but rather understated quality.

My leading version of the Sinfonia concertante is the expressive and characterful performance from Rafael Druian and Abraham Skernick with Members of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. That recording was made at Cleveland, USA in 1963 and is available on Sony SBK67177 (c/w. Sinfonia concertante, K297b and Rondo, K269). I also admire the stylish interpretation from Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under Zubin Mehta. The live performance was recorded at the 1982 Huberman Festival for Deutsche Grammophon 415 486-2 (c/w Concertone, KV190).

Dazzling virtuosity has been put carefully aside by the thoughtful Vengerov who is heard here at his most mellow and beguiling in these rather understated performances. My preference is for Vengerov performing late-Romantic repertoire. I especially enjoyed his 2002 London, Abbey Road recordings of the Britten Violin Concerto and Walton Viola Concerto with the LSO under Rostropovich on EMI Classics 5 57510 2. Vengerov might wish to delight his supporters by continuing in the British music vein with recordings of violin concertos from Elgar, Walton, Bax, Bliss and Moeran. 

Michael Cookson


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