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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Sinfonia concertante in E flat, K364 (1779) [31:58]*
Violin Concerto No. 4 in D, K218 (1775) [24:15]
Violin Concerto No. 2 in D, K211 (1775) [21:55]+
Maxim Vengerov (violin); Lawrence Power (viola)*
UBS Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra/Maxim Vengerov
rec. +February 2006, Henry Wood Hall, London; August 2006, Salle Métropole, Lausanne
EMI CLASSICS 3783742 [78:52]
Experience Classicsonline

Back when the CD catalogue endlessly duplicated the standard repertoire, the common complaint about modern ‘cookie-cutter’ performances was probably justified. On the other hand, there's a fine line between being distinctive and being "different," in a distracting way - if you're noticing what's "different," you're no longer focused on the music - and Maxim Vengerov doesn't always avoid crossing it in this program.

The booklet note - not quoting the soloist directly, but strongly suggesting that this is his view - notes that, in Mozart's time, "an increase in the number and variety of orchestral instruments deployed had begun to inspire a wider dynamic range and a new tendency towards expressive crescendos and diminuendos." Well, maybe - certainly that view will serve as a useful corrective to early-music mavens who impose a limited dynamic and expressive scheme on this music. But I don't hear anything unusually loud or soft here - just a tendency towards pumped-up accents, as early as the third chord of the Sinfonia concertante. They're not aggressive or unmusical - indeed, their cushioned buoyancy could serve as a model for how to integrate accents within the phrase, and not just in this repertoire. But they do sound overdone - out of scale with everything else, to no immediately clear structural or expressive purpose. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the strings favor soft-edged, restrained attacks - playing that is piano in style, not just in sheer decibels. But the effect tends to be mushy in lyrical passages, finicky and under-projected in the more articulated ones. If you like this sort of orchestral playing, you'd do better to hunt down David Oistrakh's old EMI accounts: he leads the Berlin Philharmonic, a more polished ensemble than the ad hoc Verbier group, and one which, grâce à Karajan, took more naturally to such a style. 

The Sinfonia concertante, which ought to be magical, particularly suffers from all this musical bobbing and weaving. The fourteen-minutes-and-change of the opening Allegro maestoso seems endless, because there's not enough of a through line; the Andante simply elapses. Only the Presto finale comes to life, exploiting the timbral differences between Vengerov's full-bodied, silky playing and Lawrence Power's darker, grainier tone. The horns are unduly reticent throughout the piece. The Fourth Concerto is a bit better than this - its central Andante cantabile is graceful, if not quite elegant - but here it's the oboes' turn to be bashful. 

Only the Second Concerto - recorded first, perhaps before the concern with details got out of control - comes off as one might have hoped. I'd still prefer crisper attacks in the outer movements, but at least the phrasing, stripped of dynamic chicanery, sounds natural and musical; the Andante sings with real poise. Here and there, Vengerov's tone on the G string seems rather outsized, à la Perlman, but he plays handsomely and phrases impeccably. 

Recommendations are difficult in the solo concertos - the cultivated Grumiaux accounts (Philips), remain a safe and satisfying choice, although the recorded sound has aged noticeably. In the Sinfonia concertante, the father-son duo of David and Igor Oistrakh (Decca) offers a top-notch rendition, though it might be hard to find on CD - I have a "super-LP" issue. 

Stephen Francis Vasta


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