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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Violin Concerto No 3 in G, K216 (1775) [20:43]
Violin Concerto No 4 in D, K218 (1775) [20:30]
Violin Sonata in E minor, K304 (1778) [15:11]
Francesca Dego (violin), Francesca Leonardi (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Sir Roger Norrington
rec. 1-2 August 2019, New Auditorium, Royal Concert Hall, RSNO Centre, Glasgow, UK (concertos); Fazioli Concert Hall, Sacile (PN), Italy
CHANDOS CHAN20234 [56:26]

Most striking on this CD is Violin Concerto 4. Roger Norrington’s introduction with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra makes you sit up. The first phrase a formal, military gentleman, the second a teasing lady, immediately rebuffed by the upper strings, all this again, then a lively, happy tutti where the couple relish their style in union. The lady introduces a suave second theme (tr. 4, 0:33). The man interrupts, macho; the lady adds her own military style tail (0:49), liked by orchestral soloists and this effects another stylish, unified tutti. When the solo violin takes centre stage the lady’s perspective dominates, adding a third theme (1:47), which Francesca Dego begins richly, then makes flow easily, semiquaver runs notwithstanding. Then she adds a more ostentatious fourth theme (2:02) delivered with panache. The development (3:40) is a seamless continuation with a startling fp opening, but Dego soon diffuses the tension with sequences of a rising and falling figure, then a tripping descent to the third theme recap.

All the cadenzas Dego plays are by the Italian violinist and professor, Franco Gulli. This particular one showcases the lady’s early military style tail and a sweeter consideration of the second theme musing and ascending heavenwards. Gulli’s 1989 recording (Claves 508913-4), though timing at 0:50 only 6 seconds faster, is showier, more dazzling, sounding more improvised yet less reflective than Gulli’s.

I compare Baiba Skride with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Elvin Adland, also recorded in 2019 (Orfeo C997201, review). Norrington’s orchestral sound is better, his tuttis less heavy and lighter material daintier. But Skride commands your attention more grippingly, particularly in the rigorous progress of her fourth theme. Dego, however, provides more delicacy and intimacy, as if the essence of her approach. Using Joseph Joachim’s cadenza which takes 1:51 gives Skride more challenge and variety, surveying the first as well as second and third themes.

The Andante cantabile slow movement comes from Norrington with generously sunny orchestral sound, Dego happily observing and enjoying. The more heartfelt second theme (tr. 5, 1:05) is treated quite bashfully by Dego, the third theme (1:35) reserved for more pirouetting finesse. Yet in the recapitulation it’s the second theme in upper register in which Dego reveals intense sweetness and longing. Gulli’s cadenza of 20 seconds treats just the second phrase of the first theme. Adland, timing at 6:43 to Norrington’s 5:13, is maybe less Andante yet for me achieves more cantabile. Norrington’s is rather a hothouse environment. Skride marshals her milieu, her second theme more emotive from the start, her third more sweetly laid back. Adland achieves a lovely calm in the first theme recap and Skride a serene second theme recap. Joachim’s fuller cadenza, lasting 1:29, treats more probingly the entire first theme and the third.

The Allegretto grazioso rondo finale Dego presents sleekly yet with a mischievous twinkle. In its first episode (tr. 6, 0:46) she enjoys exchanging tumbles with the strings. The second episode (2:32) is more serious and mettlesome in Dego’s semiquaver runs above stalking, sustained wind notes, while a central ‘interlude’ (3:21) finds her accompanying her melody with a drone. In the third episode (4:14) the semiquavers are flightier, yet still sweet from Dego. Every return of the rondo theme is preceded by an eingang (mini-cadenza), the first two (1:42, 4:59) improvised by Dego, brief and tastefully ostentatious, the third (5:51) fuller where she uses Gulli’s cadenza which recalls two fragments of themes. Dego plays it with neat precision, where Gulli in his Claves recording provides more madcap zest.

Skride’s finale is more suavely sedate, yet still bright. Her episodes seem effortlessly vivacious where in the first episode I find Adland’s strings’ matching tumbles over disciplined. Skride is able to make episode 2 more graceful, despite its greater rigour. Skride’s ‘interlude’ drone is richer and warmer than Dego’s and her episode 3 more laid-back. Like Dego’s, her third eingang is longer, but her aerial manoeuvres don’t recall earlier themes.

Most striking in Violin Concerto 3 is its Adagio slow movement. The orchestral introduction starts a lovely arioso the soloist repeats an octave higher, ethereal yet also sweet from Dego, adding a modicum of ornamentation in the recapitulation, matching its gentle elaboration of the theme. Gulli’s cadenza (tr. 2, 4:48), a pleasing blend of descents and ascents, is played more exquisitely by Dego than Gulli. Timing the movement at 5:51, Dego/Norrington are closer to Adagietto than, for example, Skride/Adland’s 7:34. For me this works because Norrington can thereby point up orchestral activity, for example the pulse of the accompanying violins’ semiquavers in the development (2:12), precise yet never overbearing, which allows Dego to display more spaciousness and freedom.

The Violin Sonata K304 shows the violin advancing from earlier sonatas where it just had an accompanying role. The opening movement starts with the theme played unison by violin and piano, then espressivo by the violin alone with piano accompanying. The piano takes the lead in the more powerful second theme (tr. 7, 0:38) in the major, but the violin is allowed to echo it. The balance between the two Francescas here, Dego and pianist Francesca Leonardi, is exact and vivid, especially the venom of the fps at the phrase endings in the recapitulation (4:30) and the judicious extra ornamentation provided by both players in repeats. Even when the piano has the main melodic role towards the end, the violin’s sustained notes filling out the chords (from 8:18) have a sultrily desolate effect. The Tempo di Menuetto finale has a baroque feel, Leonardi’s solo opening with limpid, sotto voce playing of the wistful theme. Dego’s repeat over the piano’s flowing quavers has more edge and she remains an unsettling presence in her later accompaniment. The Trio, dolce in E major (2:32), gentle and static, is presented by both players in full appreciation of its sensibility. Leonardi has adventurous cascading quavers in triplets at the close, but earlier (5:11) Dego’s sighing variation of the theme in quaver pairs affectingly catches the essence of the movement.

Michael Greenhalgh

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