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CLASSICAL  December 2005

CLASSICAL December 2005

Subject:

Mozart's Violin Concertos

From:

Donald Satz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 7 Dec 2005 00:08:16 +0000

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

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   Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
               The Violin Concertos

Concerto No. 1 in B flat major, K 207
Concerto No. 2 in D major, K 211
Concerto No. 3 in G major, K 216
Concerto No. 4 in D major, K 218
Concerto No. 5 in A major, K 219
"Haffner" Serenade in D major, K 250 (excerpts - Movements 2/3/4)
Pamela Frank, solo violin
Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich
David Zinman, conductor
Recorded 1997/99
Originally Released 1999 (BMG)
Reissued 2005 (Allegro)
Arte Nova ANO 721040 [2cds - 139:28]

Concertos Nos. 1 - 5
Sinfonia Concertante in E flat major for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra, K 364
*
Anne-Sophie Mutter, solo violin and director
Yuri Bashmet, solo viola *
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded 2005
Released 2005
Deutsche Grammophon B0005078 [2cds - 148:53]

Concertos Nos. 1, 3, 4
Viktoria Mullova, solo violin and director
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (period instruments)
Recorded 2001
Released 2002
Philips 470 292-2 [66:02]

Concertos Nos. 1 - 5
Sinfonia Concertante *
Vladimir Spivakov, solo violin and director
Yuri Bashmet, solo viola *
English Chamber Orchestra
Recorded 1977-83
Reissued 2005
EMI Gemini 86528 [2cds - 155:36]

Concertos Nos. 3 & 4
Adagio for Violin and Orchestra in E Major, K 261
Rondo for Violin and Orchestra in B flat, K 269
Julia Fischer, solo violin
Netherlands Chamber Orchestra
Yakov Kreizberg, conductor
Recorded 2005
Released 2005
PentaTone PTC 5186 072 (Hybrid Multichannel SACD) [60:45]

Violin Concertos Comparisons:
Grumiaux/Pellicia/C. Davis/London Symphony Orchestra/Philips (includes K 261
& 364)
Huggett/Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Virgin Classics (includes K
261 & 269)
Lin/Leppard/English Chamber Orchestra/Sony (includes K 261 & 269)
Mutter/Marriner (Academy of St. Martin - no. 1 & K 261)/Muti (Philharmonia -
nos. 2 and 4)/EMI
Mutter/Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic/DG (nos. 3 and 5)
D. Oistrakh/Berlin Philharmonic/EMI (includes K 261 & 269)
Perlman/Levine/Vienna Philharmonic/DG (includes K 261 & 269)
Standage/Hogwood/Academy of Ancient Music/Decca (includes K 261 & 269)
Stern/Szell (nos. 1-3-5)/Schneider (nos. 2, 4, K 261, K 250 - 4th
Movement)/Sony

Haffner Serenade Comparisons:
Brandis/Bohm/Berlin Philharmonic/DG
Vlcek/Mackerras/Prague Chamber Orchestra/Telarc

Before turning to the five recordings being reviewed, I'd like to offer
my views on performance practices concerning baroque and classical era
music.  The two approaches may be referred to as "traditional" and
"historically informed".  The traditional approach held center court
well into the latter half of the 20th century and was dominated by the
popularity of romantic era music which required large orchestras and
lush sound.  Essentially, what was good for Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, etc.,
was also considered right for Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and the other
composers of the baroque and classical eras.  This "one size fits all"
thinking resulted in relatively thick textures, rounded contours/phrasing,
massive waves of sound, a wide and pervasive vibrato from the strings
and human voice, and woodwind/brass contributions integrated into the
fabric of the strings.

Thanks to the pioneering work of historical performance specialists such
as Gustav Leonhardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, as well as the musicological
community, an historically informed approach to early and classical era
music was developed replete with period instrumentation.  Simply changing
the instruments employed gave the music an entirely different sound, but
much more was involved.  Orchestral size was reduced, tempos were faster,
textures were leaner, contours and phrasing became much sharper, vibrato
was reduced to minimal proportions, and the woodwind/brass instruments
gained prominence as they were freed from the dominating string sections.

The new HIP approach was treated like poison by the more extreme members
of the traditional bloc such as Pinchas Zukerman who stated that musicians
taking the HIP route did so only to hide their abysmal technique and
artistry in a far less competitive field within classical music.  The
other basic complaint was that HIP equals ugly: ugly sounding instruments,
ugly vocalism from the "white" sounds of soprano Emma Kirby, tempos that
didn't allow the music sufficient breathing room, and a general lack of
musicality and expressiveness.

For their part, the more extreme members of the HIP movement were equally
obnoxious and nasty, basically referring to the traditionalists as
misguided folks who made an abortion of early, baroque, and classical
era music.  Although decades have now passed, the extremists on both
sides continue to berate one another, failing to recognize that both
approaches can well co-exist to the benefit of audiences.

The most recent development in this story of musicology, aesthetics,
and dysfunctional personalities, is the mix of modern instrumentation
with an historically informed approach to music-making.  This stage was
inevitable given that many music professionals think highly of some of
the features of the HIP movement such as leaner textures and quicker
tempos, but have never found themselves fond of period instruments.  This
blend of HIP and modern instruments can now be found in many recordings
of Beethoven orchestral music and has even extended to performances of
the music of Bruckner, Brahms, and Wagner.

Concerning the comparison recordings in the heading, folks such as
Oistrakh, von Karajan, and Bohm are clearly in the traditional camp;
this is no surprise based on the era in which they performed.  Szell,
Marriner, Levine, Leppard, and Colin Davis occupy a less heavy regimen,
while Mackerras is the epitome of performances using modern instruments
with a historically informed aesthetic.  Of course, Hogwood, Standage,
and Huggett represent the most comprehensive display of the HIP approach
through use of period instruments.

With the above in mind, where do Pamela Frank and David Zinman reside?
Well, Zinman is definitely in the modern instrument-HIP aesthetic mode.
His orchestral forces are reduced, tempos are uniformly brisk, contours
are sharpened, and his textures are 'lean and mean'.  Overall, I have
little complaint with his conducting on the Arte Nova set.  Although the
slow middle movements are quickly dispatched, Zinman never loses sight
of the music's poignant nature.  I do have a couple of quibbles though.
The first one is that his phrasing is not sufficiently fluid in the 1st
Movement of Concerto No. 1.  The second concerns the issue of cadenzas.
Zinman uses his own throughout the set except for Concerto No. 5 where
cadenzas by Joseph Joachim are employed.  Zinman's cadenzas for the other
works are a model of good taste and style, but the Joachim cadenza to
the 1st Movement is an excessively angst-ridden and romantically overblown
failure entirely out of tune with the music's upbeat nature.  A cadenza
that might be appropriate for Brahms or Tchaikovsky is nonsense when
applied to Mozart, and I am very surprised that Zinman didn't have the
good sense to realize this fact.

My enthusiasm for Zinman's performances is much greater than I can muster
for Pamela Frank.  Actually, I have no enthusiasm for her interpretations
and feel that the music is more enjoyable when she is absent.  Her style
is to take the vibrato from the traditional school and the shortened
note values from the HIP aesthetic.  Sorry, but it's a poor match.
Perhaps more damaging, Frank is not particularly expressive and her tone
is quite anemic: no body, resonance, or depth.  Two thumbs down for Ms.
Frank.

Most 2-cd sets of Mozart's Violin Concertos have some bonus material,
and Zinman offers three movements from the "Haffner" Serenade.  I suppose
that these movements can be looked at as a violin concerto, but having
an Adagio as the initial movement is certainly unconventional.  At any
rate, Zinman conducts expertly and I love how he highlights the foreboding
characteristics of the Menuet.  Unfortunately, Frank is also involved.

Final opinion of Zinman/Frank?  At premium price, this set would have
little viability, but the Arte Nova super-budget price is significantly
lower than what Naxos charges.  Given the minimal cost and Zinman's fine
conducting, I can give a mild recommendation to the set.  Still, this
is low priority and Pamela Frank carries the burden.

Next on the agenda is the newly minted Anne-Sophie Mutter set where she
also directs the London Philharmonic.  Mutter is one of the most popular
classical artists in the world, and she got her rise to fame through her
association with Herbert von Karajan.  She has already recorded Mozart's
Violin Concertos, so it is interesting to compare her new readings with
the older ones listed in the heading.  In addition, her partner in the
Sinfonia Concertante, Yuri Bashmet, is also found teaming up with Vladimir
Spivakov in the same work on the reissued set I am reviewing on the EMI
Gemini label.

In comparing Mutter with Frank, one immediately notices that Mutter's
vibrato is as constant but much wider.  This might lead to a preference
for Frank except for a crucial consideration - Mutter brings the music
to life, while Frank plays from the sidelines.  Mutter is vital and
aggressive; Frank's playing has a demure quality as if she's a part-timer
not wanting to ruffle any feathers.  In a sense, Mutter is larger than
life.  She is to the forefront of the soundstage, and every note/nuance
registers with great impact.  Her bowing, accenting, swells, and slurring
are highly individualized, resulting in performances that one would never
forget.  Add in the widest range of dynamics I've ever heard in these
works, and we certainly have a unique set.  Concerning cadenzas, Mutter
uses various sources, each one highly emotional and romantic; of course,
Mutter wrings every ounce of juice out of them.

Given that Mutter dives right into the game, the issue that remains is
whose game she is playing.  My perception is that she doesn't play
Mozart's music as much as she uses it as the launching pad to express
her own inner thoughts and emotions.  I have doubts that Mozart expected
the violin soloist to play like Mutter, but I am confident he would have
found her performances totally absorbing.  I was reading some reviews
of the set the other day from Amazon customers, and their overall opinion
seemed to be that Mutter was NOT beyond Mozart's idiom.  I have to
disagree with that premise; she is well outside reasonable boundaries.
However, compelling interpretations don't have to be idiomatic ones.

Mutter's conducting is very good.  The funny thing is that such a romantic
interpreter of Mozart on the violin can be quite HIP minded when directing
the orchestra.  Tempos are usually brisk, textures are rather stark, and
attacks are crisp and propulsive.  The contrast between orchestra and
solo violin is extreme; whether that's good or bad is something for you
to decide.

As for specifics, the worst feature of the set concerns the Adagio from
Concerto No. 4; Mutter and orchestra become the equivalent of the
"walking dead" with a very slow tempo and zero projection.  The other
thing that sticks in my mind is how much I love her performance of
Concerto No. 4.  For whatever reason, Mutter is much less an interventionist
in this work than the others, and the results are wonderful including
the more unified mindset between orchestra and solo violin.  When comparing
these new interpretations to Mutter's previous ones, an additional
maturity is evident as well as a stronger penchant for going "outside
the box"; her new readings are clearly of a more romantic bent.

The bonus material in Mutter's set of Mozart's Violin Concertos is the
Sinfonia Concertante in E flat major, and her performance displays the
best and worst of her Violin Concertos interpretations.  The 1st Movement
is superb as both Mutter and Bashmet stay within the Mozart sound world
and deliver thrilling performances with power-packed conversations between
them.  Unfortunately, each goes into "overblown drive" for the remainder
of the work.  The 2nd Movement really gets pulverized by ridiculous
emotional displays with Bashmet swooning in 'vibrato heaven'; he was
much better behaved in his recording with Spivakov.  For a role-model
performance of the 2nd Movement, the gorgeous and tasteful Grumiaux/Pellica
recording on Philips has no peers.

Well, I've been thinking of the Mutter set as objectively as possible,
but it's time to get down to gut feelings.  Mutter's new recordings could
have been at the top of the mountain, but romantic excess holds them
back.  This is definitely not the set to have as one's sole recording
of the Violin Concertos, but avid fans of the music and/or Mutter should
strongly consider acquisition.  All others are advised to sample before
deciding.  For my part, I intend to keep the set for its best moments
and the tremendous violin playing of Anne-Sophie Mutter.

At this point, I might as well advance with the Spivakov/Bashmet discs
on EMI Gemini.  These performances have gotten some bad press, but there
are some fine features to consider.  Spivakov's conducting is very good.
His tempos may be on the slow side, but the pacing is expert and I love
the tension he offers from the lower strings.  Also, the 1st Movement
from the Sinfonia Concertante is superbly played and analogous to the
unfolding of a story.  As for the soundstage, it doesn't have much sheen
but is clean and well-detailed.

What I don't care for is Spivakov's solo playing in the Violin Concertos.
It is workman-like, lacking expressiveness and potency.  As with the
Zinman/Frank performances, my enjoyment of the music is enhanced when
the solo violinist is not playing.  Further, Spivakov is another "constant
vibrato" violinist; that's three in a row now in this review, and I
hunger for its absence.  At any rate, don't get too excited about this
set.

Finally, top-rate performances courtesy of Julia Fischer.  Her fame
appears to be growing exponentially, and this new Mozart disc should add
to the stampede.  The bold and aggressive playing of Anne Sophie Mutter
gives way to Fischer's intimate and creamy legato that is comforting and
pure.  Fischer offers an absolutely gorgeous set of performances with
much less vibrato than Mutter, Spivakov, or Frank.  Conductor Yakov
Kreizberg and his chamber orchestra are very much in the HIP style and
in complete accord with Fischer.

Admittedly, neither Fischer nor Kreizberg delivers the utmost in excitement,
preferring elegantly shaped phrasing that is most irresistable.  Actually,
"irresistable" sums up these reassuring performances, and the sound is
state-of-the-art in both the regular CD and SACD format.  I do wish that
Fischer was more to the forefront of the production, because there are
times when her projection is too polite and within the orchestral fabric.
However, this is a small matter when in the presence of such lovely,
humane, and refined playing.  Most of the cadenzas are by Fischer, and
they are entirely suitable to the emotional content of the music.  The
bonus pieces, K 261 & 269, are also excellently played, but I would have
liked another concerto instead of these two pieces that don't quite reach
the quality of the five concertos.

Overall, I place this new Fischer disc among the elite recordings of
Mozart's Violin Concertos.  It's a disc to curl up with when the world
is looking bitter and unforgiving; Fischer takes us to the secure and
loving home we all deserve.  Just remember that Fischer is not the
violinist to choose when you crave fireworks and adventures to distant
lands.

The last recording to review comes from Viktoria Mullova and the Orchestra
of the Age of Enlightenment.  Period instrument recordings of the Mozart
Violin Concertos are few in number with only the Standage and Huggett
sets readily available.  Standage can easily be dismissed, as his
interpretations lack character and he only knows one colour - gray.
Huggett is much better; she has a personality.

Mullova also has a personality: burnished, singing, and rather dark.
Since this is the ideal musical personna for Mozart's slow middle
movements, Mullova is particularly compelling in the three middle movements
of the concertos with her smoldering intensity.  She is also no slouch
in the outer movements, taking an exuberant and playful stand; however,
even here Mullova is transcendent in the more serious passages such as
the one beginning at 1:40 into 3rd Movement of Concerto No. 3.

As for Mullova's conducting, it is as crisp, active, and expressive as
her solo playing.  Her tempos are very much in the mainstream except for
the quickly paced middle movements; although they can sound a mite too
fast when Mullova's solo part is at rest, her entrance totally overwhelms
all other considerations.  The cadenzas are newly minted with Ottavio
Dantone doing the honors excepting for Mullova's cadenza to the 3rd
Movement of Concerto No. 3.  For those not familiar with Dantone, he
is an early music keyboard specialist who has recorded Bach's Well-Tempered
Clavier and Handel's Suites for Harpsichord on the ARTS label.  He is a
superb artist, and his cadenzas along with Mullova's treatments are fully
within the Mozart idiom and enhance the pleasures of listening to the
disc.  Sonics could not be better, as every note is clearly delineated
in a perfectly resonant environment.  If your preferences are with period
instrument recordings of Mozart's orchestral music, the Mullova disc is
a necessity and superior to both Standage and Huggett.

Don's Conclusions: Five Reviews, two outstanding recordings - Fischer
and Mullova.  Concerning the comparison versions, the Standage/Hogwood
is the only one not excellent or better.  My two favorites for many years
have been Lin/Leppard and Grumiaux/Davis.  I don't know at this point
if my preferences will change with Fischer and Mullova on board, but I
will have a great time listening to these four versions in future months
and making a decision.

Don Satz
[log in to unmask]

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