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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Violin Concerto No. 1 in B flat major, K207 (c.1773-75) [18.54]
Violin Concerto No. 2 in D major, K211 (1775) [16.45]
Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major ‘Strassburg’, K216 (1775) [20.16]
Europa Galante/Fabio Biondi, direction and baroque violin
rec. 5-9 September, 2005, Teatro Comunale Paolo Ferrari, San Marcello, Italy. DDD
VIRGIN CLASSICS 3447062 [56.00]

 

 

The period-instrument ensemble Europa Galante under the direction of baroque violinist Fabio Biondi are one of Virgin Classics’ most prolific and best-selling artists. Biondi is well renowned for his Vivaldi recordings but on this new release, to tie in with Mozart’s 250th birthday celebrations, he explores previously unknown territory for him, that of Mozart’s violin concertos. There must surely be further volumes in the pipeline from Biondi on Virgin Classics to include the remaining two Violin Concertos, K218 and K219, the Concertone, K190, the Adagio, K261, the Rondos, K269 & K273 and possible the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, K364.

Founded in Italy, in 1989, Europa Galante are one of the very finest and most exciting ensembles of the new generation that have come to prominence at the cutting-edge of the authentic-instrument scene in the last decade of so. The pioneering interpretations of Baroque and Classical music using authentic-instruments were dictated by the severe limitations of the instruments. These restrictions must have felt so confining to the players; as if they were all wearing strait-jackets. Consequently the performance style often came across as technically mechanical, rather lacklustre, frequently insipid and even sterile. Biondi and Europa Galante were one of a group of Young Turks who were able to explore and exploit the strength of their period-instruments rather than being restricted by the weaknesses. They came to international prominence in 2000 with a ground-breaking interpretation of Vivaldi’s Op. 8 set of 12 Violin Concertos Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione, the collection that contains the much-loved Four Seasons, on Virgin Veritas 5 61980 2.

Mozart wrote his five Violin Concertos in Salzburg in 1775. It is not certain if the set was intended for his own use or for Italian violinist Antonio Brunetti, a court violinist who Mozart later judged as coarse, vulgar and a disgrace to his profession. The Violin Concertos were also played in Salzburg by Johann Anton Kolb, for whom Leopold Mozart implies one of the concertos had been written.

It is said that the first of the five Violin Concertos, the Violin Concerto in B flat major, K207 was written in the Spring of 1773 in Salzburg, not 1775, as originally thought. It is scored for an orchestra with pairs of oboes and horns, in addition to the usual strings. The B flat major, K 207 Concerto opens with a statement of the principal theme by the orchestra, later taken up and developed by the soloist. The slow movement has a principal theme of particular grace, capped by the soloist The last movement, returning to the original key, is introduced by the orchestra, followed by the soloist with a theme of simple elegance.

Mozart completed his Violin Concerto No. 2 in D major, K211 in June 1775, scoring it for the usual orchestra of oboes, horns and strings. The first movement starts with a descending arpeggio figure proclaimed by the whole orchestra, followed by a gentler complementary figure. The soloist enters with the same call to the listener's attention, embellishing and extending the theme, before embarking on the material of the subsidiary theme. The oboes and horns have very little part to play in the G major slow movement, with its poignant principal melody, taken up by the soloist after its first statement in the orchestra. In the finale it is the soloist that first leads the way into a pert little theme then repeated by the orchestra in a rondo of the greatest clarity of texture.

The Violin Concerto in G Major, K216 shares the greater popularity of the last three of the series. The opening allegro offers an orchestral exposition in which the principal themes are declared, the first of them having already appeared in Il re pastore. The soloist repeats the principal theme and by means of new material leads to the second subject, both duly developed and re-established in the final section of the movement.

The adagio is an assured example of Mozart's handling of the solo violin cantilena, a finely sustained violin melody, to which the orchestra provides a subtle foil. This D Major slow movement is succeeded by a final rondo, allegro with a profusion of varied ideas in its contrasting episodes, which include a courtly dance and a less urbane folk-dance before the final re-appearance of the principal theme. The opening orchestral theme in the final movement is from a popular tune ‘à la mélodie de Strassbourger’ which gave the Concerto its occasionally used nickname, the ‘Strassburg’.

Palermo-born Biondi expresses his desire to free period-performance of stifling convention and musicological dogma which has resulted in some of the most spontaneous and impassioned performances of this inexhaustible repertoire in modern times. Biondi and Europe Galante give stylistically innovative interpretation performances of Mozart’s three Violin Concertos. He is obviously eager wholeheartedly to experience the music with ‘new eyes’. With a strong sense of expressive freedom Biondi imaginatively and bravely chooses to provide exciting, energetic and occasionally explosive playing as a priority; a risky approach that comes off here to sheer perfection. He 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. Although it is not stated on this release the last time I checked Biondi was using an original Carlo Ferdinando Gagliano (1766 Naples).

I enjoyed the tender adagio of K207 where Biondi’s violin weaves its flowing lines gravely and severely creating a rich and placid air. The opening allegro of K216 is my highlight of the release. The memorable and powerful main theme with its biting rhythm is played by Biondi and his Italian ensemble with ferocious fire, spirit and superb control, followed by his spirited cadenza. I would also single out Biondi’s interpretation of the adagio of RV216 for special praise, of which Albert Einstein said, “could have fallen straight from heaven”. Biondi’s playing offers depth and concentration yet with great empathy, proving the adagio to be one of Mozart’s most sublime creations. Throughout the three Concertos the enthusiastic Europa Galante supply orchestral playing of the highest calibre and their robust driving rhythms are especially remarkable.          

There are a large number of recordings of Mozart’s violin concertos in the catalogues. The sets most likely to be encountered will include: Arthur Grumiaux with the LSO under Sir Colin Davis on Philips; Itzhak Perlman with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra 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 Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment 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 and Yehudi Menuhin with the Bath Festival Orchestra on EMI Seraphim. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list just a guide to the more established sets.

For those wanting just one disc of Mozart’s violin concertos the field is dominated by two straight choices, both on period-instruments. Firstly, the astonishing risk-taking performances from Biondi and Europa Galante on Virgin Classics and secondly the accounts from Viktoria Mullova with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on Philips. Mullova performs and directs her wonderful interpretations of Mozart’s Violin Concertos Nos. 1, 3 and4 on Philips 470 292-2. Although her 2001 London recording received a mixed critical reception, Mullova’s exciting and characterful interpretations left 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 still makes the hairs stick up on the back on my neck.

If the listener has a problem with period-instrument performances the set of the violin concertos to go for, using modern instruments, is clearly that from Arthur Grumiaux with the LSO under Sir Colin Davis on Philips 464 722-2. These evergreen performances are highly satisfying, being beautifully played with an abundance of vivacity and expression, together with an appealing purity of tone. Recorded in London between 1961 and 1964 the forty year old sound quality, in digital transfers, has worn remarkably well.   

The cool, clear and detailed sound quality from the Virgin Classics engineers is highly impressive. The concise annotation from Adelaide de Place is interesting and instructive. 

Exciting, explosive and thought-provoking performances. If I had to own just one Mozart recording, in this his 250th anniversary year, it would be this one.

Michael Cookson

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