The Greatest Recordings Of Mozart’s Violin Concertos

Byvu lita

Dec 29, 2023

Why did we think Mozart composed 8 violin concertos?

Little more than 50 years ago, it was widely thought Mozart had composed eight violin concertos. Most notorious of all was the so-called Adelaide (‘No. 8’), which Marius Casadesus (uncle of pianist Robert) claimed in 1933 to have restored from an authentic two-stave manuscript.

It was duly published, premiered by Jelly d’Aranyi and even recorded by Yehudi Menuhin before, in 1977, Casadesus confessed it was all a hoax and entirely his own work. ‘No. 6’ in E flat was claimed by Mozart’s near-contemporary Johann Friedrich Eck to have been played to him by the composer. Rigorous stylistic analysis and comparison with Eck’s own music in the late 1970s revealed the Mozart story was almost certainly a product of Eck’s colourful imagination.

‘No. 7’ in D K271a – sometimes known as the Kolb, after Salzburg violinist Franz Xaver Kolb – remains a subject for heated debate. The problem here is that it is indisputably a fine piece, full of memorable ideas, so much so that several experts have conceded it could at least in part be by Mozart. The jury is still out, the official verdict being that its authorship is ‘doubtful’ rather than merely ‘spurious’.

So how many violin concertos did Mozart actually compose?

Which leaves five genuine, thoroughly authenticated concertos – No. 1 in B flat K207, No. 2 in D K211, No. 3 in G K216, No. 4 in D K218 and No. 5 in A K219, all composed in Salzburg in 1775, although it is possible that No. 1 may date from a couple of years earlier.

Remarkably, Mozart was just 19 years of age at the time, although no less astonishing is the fact that he was effectively a spare-time violin prodigy. His father Leopold, author of a highly influential Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing (1756) and a fine orchestral player, constantly despaired at Mozart’s reluctance to apply himself to his violin studies.

Yet it would seem he had the kind of natural talent that made practising almost an irrelevance. Aged seven, he made his concerto debut with the Salzburg Court Orchestra having been recently appointed second vice-Kapellmeister, and by the time he composed his own violin concertos he was a seasoned soloist.

Two years later, following a concert in Munich, for which he did practise, he wrote excitedly to his father ‘I played as though I was the greatest fiddler in all Europe,’ to which his father replied despondently that if only he’d play with his ‘whole heart and mind’, he probably was! Antonio Brunetti, who became concertmaster of the Salzburg Court Orchestra in 1777, despaired that Mozart ‘could play anything, if he put his mind to it.’ Mozart was also an accomplished-enough viola player to perform in an ad hoc quartet whose other composer-members were Haydn, Dittersdorf and Vanhal.

Why did Mozart compose so many violin concertos?

It is still unclear as to why Mozart should have devoted himself at this time with such intensity to the violin concerto, a genre to which he never returned. The most likely explanation is that he had become exasperated performing other composers’ music and wanted some of his own to play.

Yet we know that Kolb and Brunetti both played the concertos, as Mozart went to the considerable trouble of writing a new central Adagio for No. 5 because Brunetti found the original (which survives as K261) ‘too artificial’. There is also circumstantial evidence that the separate Rondo in B flat K269 may have been composed for the First Concerto as a replacement for the original at Brunetti’s request.

Indisputable, however, is the crescendo of creative imagination that occurred during this period, with each concerto effectively trumping its predecessor, climaxing in the A major K219, which breaks with convention by first announcing the soloist via a brief, slow interlude.

Opinions as to how these exquisite pieces should be performed have changed beyond all recognition since they were first recorded. Yet listening through the 40-odd complete cycles available, I was surprised how quickly the ear adjusted (for the most part) to each performance’s stylistic proclivities, whenever soloist, orchestra and conductor/director achieved a musical symbiosis at the highest level. In the end it came down to four recordings that captivated so entirely I could barely keep my hand off the repeat button….

The best recordings of Mozart’s violin concertos

Henryk Szeryng (violin)

New Philharmonia Orchestra/Alexander Gibson

Decca 478 4271 (1966/69)

Henryk Szeryng was one of the great aristocrats of the violin, for whom purity of interpretative thought was paramount. His outstanding qualities – musical eloquence, precision, elegant phrasing, virtuoso ease and a tantalising combination of technical sophistication and expressive simplicity – were tailor-made for Mozart’s lucid soundworlds.

Time and again throughout his transcendent Mozart concerto series from the 1960s, with a devoted New Philharmonia Orchestra under Alexander Gibson, Szeryng turns phrases with such naturalness and understanding that it is as if Mozart were thinking out loud.

So how exactly does Szeryng achieve his miracles? The short answer is by a series of exquisite, microcosmic inflections, so subtle one is barely aware they are happening. These are achieved in part by tiny adjustments of bow angle, pressure and velocity interacting with one another, seamlessly attuned to the violin’s natural resonances.

These are further intensified by his supreme left-hand precision of vibrato (often shaded down to nothing) and intonation so incandescently pure as to set the ears ringing. Szeryng viewed tempo as a living, breathing organism, and here he matches changes in the character of the music with infinitesimal relaxations and injections of pulse, barely detectable yet instinctively felt. Like Mozart’s music itself, his playing feels continually alive and responsive while retaining its supreme aristocratic poise.

Yet for all his attention to detail, it is his deep fondness for this glorious music that is most urgently conveyed. This is felt particularly in Mozart’s unusually varied finales, which range from No. 1’s exuberant, quick-fire semiquavers to No. 4’s drone-accompanied rustic episode and No. 5’s outburst of ‘alla turca’ high-jinks, with the cellos and basses instructed to play col legno (with the wood of the bow). Szeryng’s choice of cadenzas is (for its period) also impeccable, including those by Sam Franko, Joseph Joachim and George Enescu.

Widely available on streaming platforms and as part of the Philips (now Decca) Mozart Edition, Szeryng’s exemplary Mozart series – which includes the ‘dubious’ concerto K271a, three shorter pieces and the Concertone – has also been reunited on CD with an outstanding account of the K364 Sinfonia concertante with violist Bruno Giuranna in a box set (Decca 483 4194) of Szeryng’s complete recordings for Philips, DG and Mercury.

Pamela Frank (violin)

Arte Nova G010001193190G

No one conveys the uncontainable joy of Mozart’s zestful concerto series with such infectious vitality as Pamela Frank and David Zinman’s Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich.

Although played on an historically appropriate scale, they just can’t help but ‘magic’ phrases in a way more redolent of the golden age. This reaches its apex in the central Adagio of K216, with its muted strings and flutes emulating gentle summer breezes. The way Frank intuitively shapes the skin-tingling move into B minor and beyond is perfection.

Arthur Grumiaux (violin)

Decca 438 3232

Like Augustin Dumay, whose recordings of Concertos Nos 2–5 for DG are required listening, Grumiaux plays with an enchantingly pure-toned cantabile radiance. Combining gently cushioned bow-stokes with medium-fast vibrato and tasteful portamentos, he never seems to stop ‘singing’ as he exalts in Mozart’s exuberant invention.

Those with a predilection for scaled-back textures might find the 1960s London Symphony Orchestra a shade generous in its responses, yet under Colin Davis’s sensitive direction the results possess an inner sparkle.

Isabelle Faust (violin)

Harmonia Mundi HMC 902230.31

Those wanting something closer to the kinds of sounds and interpretative rhetoric familiar in Mozart’s own time should investigate this highly acclaimed set with Il Giardino Armonico and Giovanni Antonini. Faust fills out Mozart’s melodic lines where appropriate (most enchantingly in the central Adagio of K207), keeps slow movements flowing felicitously and focuses on the dynamic range from mezzo forte downwards rather than the upward thrust of more traditional readings. Her alluring sound is immaculately tuned and deftly articulated.

And one to avoid…

On paper this set with Yehudi Menuhin, the Bath Festival Orchestra and Rudolph Barshai looks like a sure-fire winner, and Menuhin’s charismatic presence almost carries the day. His affection for these delightful scores, which he had played countless times before setting down this complete cycle in the early 1960s, is everywhere apparent. Yet sadly, the slight fraying of his bowing technique, barely noticeable in other contexts, was placed cruelly under the spotlight by Mozart’s crystal-clear violin writing, resulting in an occasional infelicity of tonal contact.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *