Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Violin Concerto in G major HobVIIa:4 (c.1761-65) [18:56]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Sinfonia Concertante KV364 (1779) [29:42]
Joseph HAYDN
Violin Concerto in C major HobVIIa:1 (c.1765-70) [19:25]
Rachel Podger (violin), Pavlo Beznosiuk (viola, Mozart)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
rec. March 2009 (Haydn) and July 2009 (Mozart), All Saints’ Vicarage, East Finchley London.
Working as I do in one of those Royal highfalutin’ music educational establishments, I’ve become used to receiving commentary on the occasional wobbly heaps of new CDs which arrive and linger on my desk for a day or so. One of the Department of Early Music students immediately fell on ‘the new Rachel Podger’, and told me the story of the special Stradivari instruments used before I’d even had a chance to look at the cover. I’ve played the first fifteen or twenty minutes of this CD more times than I now care to count, merely because that’s the duration of the school run in this rainy autumn season, and hearing the gorgeous opening of the Haydn Violin Concerto in G major I could never bring myself to shove an unsympathetic finger onto the track-skip button and miss out by exploring further, if you get what I mean.
Recordings of Haydn’s violin concerti are not all that common, and my collection has been only fairly recently been provided with the two on this new disc by their inclusion in the marvellous Haydn Complete Symphonies MP3 Edition from Nimbus. With Rainer Küchl as soloist these are fine performances and very well recorded. With a more overtly resonant acoustic they are however not quite as transparent as with this new SACD disc, and Rachel Podger lays into her cadenzas with more gusto, the double-stopping moments 6:48 into the first movement of the Violin Concerto in G major having a wonderful folksy feel. The second Adagio movement is very high quality Haydn indeed, and played here with the utmost sensitivity. I’ve moaned about over-exposed harpsichords in the past, but the continuo is so remote in the energetic final Allegro that it seems to have been banished beyond acceptable bounds. The excellent orchestral strings more than make up for this, but the harpsichord tends to buzz around on the far right rather than contributing much of substance by way of rhythm or harmony. There’s a slightly bumpy edit at 2:08 as well, the beat shifted slightly and delayed by a couple of nano-seconds. Readers should understand we reviewers have to put this sort of thing in just to show we’ve been paying attention, but in fact this has no real impact on what is otherwise a superb recording and performance. While we are on the subject of Haydn I’ll deal with the Violin Concerto in C major, which is another very fine work, the technical demands of which Rachel Podger brushes aside, creating a performance of sheer joyful musicianship and deceptive ease. Podger plays her own Pesarinius violin of 1739 for the two Haydn concerti, and the exquisite high tones of this instrument come across with a marvellously floating, almost ethereal quality at moments throughout the C major concerto. The pizzicato accompaniment of the Adagio, with its shades of Vivaldi, allows the solo line to soar and sing with delightful freedom.
Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante KV364 is justly famous, and the musicians here are against stiffer competition in the catalogues. This recording does however have a unique selling point, a loan of two Stradivarius instruments from the famous collection of my old Royal highfalutin’ musical institute the Royal Academy of Music in London. The violin is the 1699 Crespi, and Pavlo Beznosiuk plays the Castalbarco viola from ca.1720. This was originally made as a viola d’amore which would have had a flat back. The instrument was later converted into a viola by changing this for a swell back, and adding a heavier Amati head. This kind of messing around would appear to disqualify the instrument from being called a true Stradivarius, but the table of the instrument is still one of the finest examples of Stradivarius’s work, and having recorded KV364 Rachel Podger commented on the special resonance the instrument possesses, especially in the upper registers.
Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante KV364 has been oft recorded, and the version I’ve been listening to more often than not has been that of Dominika Falger and Johannes Flieder on the Dux label (see review). I like this for its transparent recording and sensitive playing, but this new recording from Podger and Beznosiuk does bring us to a different plane. Both strung with gut strings, the two solo instruments are beautifully matched, and with both Rachel and especially Pavlo being old friends of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment the whole thing has a feel of lightness and chamber-music synergy which oozes warmth and fun in the outer movements. This is helped with the not-huge acoustic of All Saints’ Vicarage, East Finchley, which is more chapel than church in terms of sonic feel; more English country mansion than Salzburg Schloss, but is not to say that this is a lightweight in terms of dynamic contrast. Take the build-up from the anticipatory opening phrases to where everything takes off at 1:48 into the opening movement and you can hear a really well prepared crescendo.
The minor-key centre to this work is of course that wonderful Andante which is played here with utmost intimacy and the most charmingly poignant phrasing. I’ve listened carefully, and am not entirely convinced the tempo of the opening is kept strictly after the entry of the solo violin, at which it seems to slow ever so slightly. This is another very minor point, so I’ll leave it up to the listener to make up their own mind as to whether they agree. My only reason for bringing it up is that I can’t think of many other criticisms. The orchestral balance is nice: the sometimes difficult intonation with the oboes taken with almost entirely poised refinement. The duet cadenza in this movement sounds like a short but soulful conversation or double monologue; both participants reminiscing on a departed friend - united, but each with their own viewpoint.
The only point remaining is that of taste in terms of the sound qualities of the solo instruments. Some listeners, being used to ‘modern’ instruments with bound rather than gut strings, may be less convinced by the difference in tone with the gut strings. These give a rounder sound, with a different kind of buzz in the timbre, and a different kind of projection due to the shifts in harmonics in the spectrum of the sonic signature of each note. I personally quite like this effect, and it fits with the early-music background of the rest of the orchestra, so to suggest it might have been done differently in this recording would be silly. If you are the kind of person who can’t listen to Mozart on a fortepiano then you might possibly turn your nose up at this equivalent in terms of string sound, but if you are the kind of person who can give yourself over to the narrative in the music and the expressive qualities in the playing rather than throwing up barriers, then you will soon become lost in this performance. The question of vibrato also arises on this topic and yes, the soloists here are restrained in its use but in fact rarely use none at all. It’s not the kind of pumped up vibrato you might find if playing high romanticism, but as any good musician will tell you, the music and the instrument both have a way of informing the style of your playing. This isn’t so much ‘authentic’ playing as has become a dirty word in certain circles, but playing which to my mind seeks the core of the music. Whether or not it the listener believes it has been found will be a personal response, but either way I don’t believe inflexible dogma has anything to do with the results in this recording.

Of the last Presto movement of KV364 Podger says “you hear it and you instantly love it”, though of course partially in its context as a reply to that darker central movement. The orchestral violins love it a little less perhaps, being not entirely together around 8 seconds in, but the tempo is quite a blistering one and the most ‘on the edge’ sounding of the whole disc. This makes for exciting listening however and the music doesn’t sound rushed or out of control. The musical ideas are thrown around with all the entertaining abandon one would hope for, and this entire recording and performance is very satisfying indeed.
Channel Classics’ SACD recording for this release is excellent, with wide ranging dynamics, enticingly deep bass, and toothsome treble especially for the soloists. The surround perspective as is usual with this label separates and creates a greater sense of air around the players, without going in for over-the-top sonic effects, and the straight stereo mix also works very well indeed. With the lean and flexible spirit of an excellent orchestra, top notch solo playing and some of the finest music the classical era has to offer, for what more could a person ask?
Dominy Clements
see also review by Jonathan Woolf