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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Violin Concerto No.1 in B flat, K.207 [20:10]
Violin Concerto No.2 in D, K.211 [19:38]
Adagio in E, K.261 [7:44]
Rondo in C, K.373 [5:53]
Rondo in B flat, K.269 [7:23]
Arabella Steinbacher (violin)
Festival Strings Lucerne/Daniel Dodds
Rec. February 2021, Paul Sacher Saal, Basel, Switzerland
PENTATONE PTC5186952 [69:54]

While many countries on mainland Europe face another lockdown, and others fear the pandemic will cause them, too, to curtail public activities, it might be worth suggesting that lockdowns are not quite the disasters to musical life they at first sight appear to be. When Arabella Steinbacher was sitting at home, like the rest of us, twiddling her thumbs and wondering if there would ever be any opportunities to make music again, she promised herself that as soon as she could get near her “wonderful colleagues” of the Festival Strings Lucerne and into a recording studio, she would complete the project of recording Mozart’s complete music for solo violin and orchestra which she had begun seven years earlier. She had released her recordings of the last three violin concertos for Pentatone back in 2014, so was left to record the first two as well as the three single-movement pieces for violin and orchestra. Earlier this year she was at last able to get that done, and the CD has now been released complete with a charming little letter from Arabella’s to those who buy it, ending with the words “Much love and stay well”. The cynic could suggest this is just a marketing ploy to give this a personal feel, but there is something about the playing which suggests an unusually intimate and personal relationship with those who get to hear it.

Whether these recordings were destined to be something very special, or whether the privations of lockdown heightened her, and the others’, enthusiasm for Mozart, the fact is these are pretty outstanding performances which buzz with a kind of electrical charge, rare on studio recordings of staple repertory. These may not be at the cutting edge of Mozart interpretations, and there will be those who query some of the interpretative decisions made – not least a tendency to veer slightly in the direction of over-romanticism - but few could deny that these are vividly communicative and utterly compelling performances, which are as stimulating as they are enjoyable. Her tone is undeniably gorgeous, rich and sensuous in its middle ranges, lyrical and soaring in the upper range, and warm-hearted in the lower range.

It may not have been merely the emotional release afforded by a (temporary) relief from lockdown that caused Steinbacher’s performances to have such intense beauty; she is also recording for the first time on the “Ex Benno Walter” Stradivarius violin, dating from 1738, and previously in the possession on violinists Benno Walter and Desző Szigeti (uncle of Joseph Szigeti). It certainly has a uniquely mellifluous tone, which she exploits to the ultimate in this programme.

Support from the Lucerne players is impeccable, gently prodded and moulded by Daniel Dodds, but always instinctively responsive to every nuance of Steinbacher’s playing. You get the impression that here are musicians who not only understand each other perfectly, but relish playing in each other’s company. These first two concertos, perhaps occasionally overlooked in preference to the last three, reveal a great many charms and delights in these beautifully recorded performances, but a real highlight are the cadenzas which were written by one of the founding fathers of the Festival Strings Lucerne, Wolfgang Schneiderhan. Without imposing excessive show or virtuosity, these are the ideal vehicles to demonstrate Steinbach’s playing and in particular the sumptuous sound of that lovely Strad.

Marc Rochester

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