Isabelle Faust is so versatile a violinist that she is as much at home in Bach as she is in Bartók, so I really have no excuse for being a tad surprised at just how good this Mozart set is. Faust plays these concertos as though she has been a specialist in this repertoire all her life, and the results are utterly delightful throughout.
Faust plays a 1704 Stradivarius here; and, for those who are interested, the dates are also given for all of the instruments played by Il Giardino Armonico, another example of Harmonia Mundi’s typically excellent programme notes. She is entirely alive to the period sensitivities of the repertory and the instrument, and she never tries to turn Mozart’s youthful concertos into prototypes of Beethoven, as some are guilty of doing. Instead her performances are lithe, agile and full of air, allowing the music to breathe naturally and totally comfortably.
To see what I mean, go straight to No. 5, both the finest concerto and the finest performance on the set. When the violin first enters [at 1:14] it seems to introduce itself in a withdrawn, almost shy manner, as if reluctant to steal the orchestra’s thunder. Introductions over, however, the violin then sings its principal theme [2:03] with a carefree brilliance that reminds you of the characters of, say, Figaro or Don Giovanni, soaring upwards with unfettered ebullience. I found it exhilarating, but also musically very sensitive. Faust sees herself as primus inter pares here, blending her sound perfectly with that of the orchestra, and only emerging as dominant when required to do so.
That sense of partnership is typical of the way that both she and Antonini approach the music. First movements are steady and purposeful but never too serious. They plug into the galant style of the opening of Nos. 2 and 4, and they get the balance of vigour and musicality just right in the opening of No. 3, much more balanced than are, say, Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante in their recording (which is still brilliant but which takes a more vigorously iconoclastic view). Slow movements are restrained and lyrical, and often come close to the form of an operatic aria without words (that of No. 4 is a particular highlight). Finales are vigorous and often dancelike. No. 1’s and No. 3’s positively leap, while those of Nos 2 and 4 are more restrained and rococo. The Turkish interlude of No. 5’s stands out very effectively with a noticeably faster tempo and the slap of the orchestra treading on just the right side of ugliness.
The shorter pieces are also very successful. The two Rondeaux are polite and conversational, and I particularly enjoyed the uncommonly beautiful Adagio, which was new to me, and is played with such sensitivity and gentleness as to be completely transfixing.
We’re not short of complete sets of the Mozart concertos, and I will always have a soft spot for Zukerman’s set, which was how I got to know these works in the first place. This one is right up at the top, though. It brings all that is best about period performance without any of the preachiness or ugliness that can creep in, and it’s to be recommended very warmly indeed. Dare we hope for Faust to record the Sinfonia Concertante?
Incidentally, the booklet notes are excellent, and include an essay from the great fortepianist Andeas Staier, who advised on the cadenzas, explaining his musical choices.