Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Violin concerto no.3 in G major, K.216 (1775) [23:26]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin concerto in D major, op.77 (1878) [40:31]
Gioconda De Vito (violin)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham (Mozart)
German Opera House Orchestra, Berlin/Paul van Kempen
rec. 25 May 1941 (Brahms) and 3-4 May 1949 (Mozart); Berlin (Brahms) and EMI Abbey Road Studio No.1, London (Mozart)
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111349 [63:57] 
Search the internet for photographs of Gioconda De Vito and you will turn up plenty of pretty glamorous images of a woman who was a leading artist of her era. So the fact that Naxos have chosen a CD cover picture of her looking more like a Home Counties housewife who’s just realised that she’s left her purse at the supermarket check-out is, at first, a little puzzling. Dig a little into De Vito’s life story, however, and you’ll begin to see why that picture isn’t so inappropriate after all.

This was a woman who, at the age of 54, decided that she had entirely fulfilled all her musical ambitions and then actually retired to a life of cosy domesticity in the Home Counties - Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, to be precise - even though the neighbours must have found it more than a little strange that, over the next 33 years until her death, she seems to have mastered only a rather rudimentary command of the English language.

While De Vito’s sudden withdrawal from the world of music may strike us as a little puzzling, it is certainly not unique. Rossini, after all, famously retired from composing in 1829 and spent the remaining 39 years of his life largely (an appropriate word!) cooking and eating. Similarly, Jascha Heifetz would much rather, in his later years, pick up a hand of cards than a violin. So why shouldn’t Gioconda De Vito have been equally entitled to call it a day with her fiddle and indulge her love of the wild animals to be found in the gardens of Trout Stream Cottage?

As it is, we are fortunate to have a legacy of recordings that is admittedly relatively small - no.3 presented here is, for instance, her only recording of any of Mozart’s concertos - but it is certainly treasurable.

The Brahms concerto was, so Tully Potter tells us in his useful booklet notes, Gioconda De Vito’s “major war-horse” (can you have such a thing as a minor war-horse?) This is the first of her two recordings, made with a German orchestra at the highpoint of that country’s fortunes in the Second World War. While no-one was ever to suggest that De Vito herself was politically suspect, the conductor on this occasion, Paul van Kempen - a Dutchman who chose to take German citizenship when the Nazis came to power and who later conducted concerts for the occupying German forces in the Netherlands - subsequently (and hardly surprisingly) experienced considerable difficulties in his career (see a 1951 report from Time magazine on a colourful riot at the Concertgebouw here http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,820678,00.html).

Recorded in a rather dry acoustic, De Vito has been placed well forward. Hence, though much of the orchestra’s contribution comes through in a slightly fuzzy and generalised way, the soloist’s full command of technique - and her beautiful tone (which was to be enhanced even more after the war when she acquired the famous Stradivarius Toscana violin) - can be heard in fine detail. A surprisingly virile and thrusting approach to the opening movement drives the music onwards with a sense of power and urgency, although there is also some exquisitely beautiful playing in the more discursive and reflective passages during the (Joachim) coda. The quality of the recording seems to improve somewhat for the adagio: more orchestral detail emerges and a better balance is established with the soloist. De Vito’s rapt and intensely lyrical performance benefits thereby from a more flattering setting. The finale is taken at a rather steadier pace than in many accounts and gains, thereby, a certain unaccustomed elegance, even if at the cost of a degree of sheer excitement and drama. It caps an immensely satisfying account of the whole work.

Recorded eight years later, De Vito’s account of Mozart’s G major concerto benefits from a more resonant and lively recording in the acoustics of EMI’s Abbey Road studio no.1. Under Beecham’s rather emphatic direction, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra - less than three years old and, if contemporary sources are to be believed, still in the process of finding its feet, let alone establishing a distinctive identity - offers robust, rather than especially sensitive or subtle, support. De Vito, by contrast occupies a far more ethereal world and her performance, full of sensitivity and grace, completely transcends the orchestra’s limitations. The especially successful adagio - nearly eight minutes of some of the most beautiful legato string playing that you are likely to hear - offers a particularly memorable demonstration of both her technique and her artistry and, amid its apparent simplicity, conveys a degree of emotional depth rarely encountered in more modern recordings.

While the sonic limitations of these recordings preclude them from being first choice recommendations, anyone unfamiliar with Gioconda De Vito’s work will, I suggest, find these eye-opening and bargain-priced accounts of considerable interest as supplements to others that they may already have on their shelves.

Rob Maynard