There are so many good recordings of these works now available that
a comparative review is quite difficult and any new one has to be special to
get a look-in. These are probably the two most popular of Mozart’s
violin concertos and are here played elegantly by rising star,
Taiwanese-Australian violinist, Ray Chen. The recording has been made in a
broad, “churchy” acoustic, allowing the violin to soar and
expand atmospherically. Nonetheless, for all its virtues, I am reluctant to
endorse this over established favourites.
My favourite account of these works is by Anne-Sophie Mutter and in
a point-by-point comparison nothing here challenges my preference. Chen has
a decidedly leaner, lighter tone than Mutter and is considerably less
characterful - or interventionist, depending on your taste. He writes his
own cadenzas, whereas she uses those by Sam Franko and Joachim, which seem
to me to be considerably more apt than Chen’s rather clumsy, jumpy
improvisations. Mutter also has the fuller, weightier, creamier tone and the
more affectionate accompaniment, despite the fact that the Festival
Orchestra has two more strings and two more double basses than the LPO.
Mutter’s tempi are often slightly faster but sound more leisurely, as
the LPO is also marginally crisper and more alert; indeed the sharpness of
the Mutter-LPO partnership is really striking.
The Sonata K305 is lesser work: a duo of only two movements
beginning with a light, bubbly Allegro before proceeding to the dreaded
variations. It is not amongst Mozart’s most inspired compositions but
Chen and Eschenbach provide a partnership of equals whereby the two
instruments call and answer each other charmingly. The conductor’s
pianism is nimble, delicate and shaded. The first variation for solo piano
will serve as an example of his restraint: it is deliberately retrospective,
courtly and Baroque, with quaint sixteenth-note runs immaculately executed.
I like, too, the way Chen often judiciously eschews vibrato or applies it
tastefully and sparingly rather than smothering proceedings in too much
Alfred Einstein famously observed that the Adagio of K216
“seemed to have fallen straight from heaven” and Chen captures
something of the requisite rapt quality without quite emulating
Mutter’s reading. That comparison can stand as the paradigm for his
performances as a whole. Chen has many gifts: clean, shining tone, secure
intonation and sensitive musicianship but he does not yet have the star
quality which sets apart artists such as Mutter.