The 50 greatest Mozart recordings – part 2

Gramophone Mon 16th May 2016

Continuing our traversal of the finest Mozart recordings, from the violin concertos to the string quartets...

Verdi's Macbeth

Violin Concertos Nos 3-5

Arabella Steinbacher vn Festival Strings Lucerne / Daniel Dodds

(Pentatone)

In the booklet accompanying this issue, Arabella Steinbacher writes: ‘These concertos have been with me since early childhood…I feel they are very close to my heart.’ Anybody tempted to dismiss this as a marketing ploy will soon change their minds on listening to these performances – they really do give the impression of a project backed by an unusual degree of sympathetic understanding.

Steinbacher has a way of searching out what gives each passage, each phrase, its individuality, getting it to speak to us through slight changes in dynamic or emphasis. Nothing is forced: the quick movements are fast enough for the passagework to sound brilliant but always with space for elegant shaping. The Lucerne Festival Strings are a small enough body to allow even accompanying lines to be played in a positive, lively manner (notice the variants in the support the violins give to the returns of the rondo theme in K216’s finale). A top-class recording enhances the sensation of keen participation. Steinbacher finds her sweetest tone for the slow movements; elsewhere, there’s a strong awareness of the sense of fun that pervades many parts of these youthful masterpieces. And she finds an extra injection of fire for the Turkish episode in K219’s finale.

The purist in me noticed occasional over-smooth articulation and, at the other extreme, very short spiccato bow strokes (in the finale of K218, for example). But these are minor issues, within these highly individual, deeply satisfying accounts. Duncan Druce (August 2014)

 

Divertimenti

Scottish Chamber Orchestra Wind Soloists

(Linn Records)

Mozart informed his father that he had composed the Serenade K375 ‘rather carefully’ to impress Herr von Strack, a Viennese nobleman sporting the splendid title of ‘Gentleman of the Emperor’s Bed Chamber’. Whether in its original Sextet incarnation, performed here, or its later Octet version, this is music that both celebrates and, as Mozart surely knew, far transcends the tradition of al fresco Harmoniemusik. If you know the more familiar Octet version, you might regret the loss of the oboes’ pungent dissonances near the opening, or of the oboe-clarinet dialogues in the Adagio. But the SCO soloists quickly allay any sense of deprivation. Like all the best ensembles in this music, they strike a nice balance between chamber-musical refinement and rustic earthiness. Natural horns lend a welcome abrasiveness to the tuttis; and the instrument’s variegated colours give added piquancy to the horn tune that sails in out of the blue near the end of the first movement. Clarinets can be dulcet, as in the tenderly phrased Adagio, yet are not afraid to rasp and bite, to specially vivid effect in the sprightly second Minuet. Tempi are aptly chosen (the opening Allegro properly maestoso), and accompanying figuration lives and breathes, not least in the Adagio, where the horns inject delightful touches of jauntiness into the poetic reverie.

The four Salzburg divertimentos for wind sextet of 1776 77 are far slighter. Yet each reveals the craftsmanship Mozart lavished even on trifles for Archbishop Colloredo’s dinner entertainment. The excellent booklet-notes fail to disclose why the Scottish players opt to perform the divertimentos with clarinets rather than the prescribed oboes. Still, while I missed the oboes’ pastoral plaintiveness in movements such as the opening siciliano of K252, the sensuous warmth of the clarinets is fair compensation in the mellifluous A flat major Trio, or the Adagio of K253. Again the players balance polish, poetry and sheer bucolic enjoyment. The rare example of a Mozartian polonaise in K252 goes with a jaunty swagger (other performances I’ve heard are rather more decorous), while the lusty contredanse finales exude an impish glee. I fancy Mozart would have smiled in approval. Richard Wigmore (February 2015)

 

Serenades

Netherlands Chamber Orchestra / Nikolitch

(Pentatone)

The Haffner, a wedding serenade for the marriage of Elizabeth Haffner in July 1776, was an outdoor summer piece, which was not good for the band, whose members were expected to move around. Thus there are no timpani; and certainly no cellos, because there were aristocratic guests (the bride’s father had been burgomaster of Salzburg), so lowly musicians couldn’t sit while they stood. When Mozart later shortened this eight-movement work to a five-movement “symphony”, he enhanced the orchestration with cellos and drums.

Gordan Nikolitch goes further. He incorporates these instruments into the original format (as did Nikolaus Harnoncourt on a scrawny-sounding early CD), thus turning the Serenade into a fuller work. Harnoncourt also added timpani to the K249 March. Nikolitch doesn’t. This work has a stately expansiveness that only switches to a militaristic snap in the first movement of the Serenade, percussion now lending point both to a regal Allegro maestoso and, leading from it, a fiery alla breve Allegro molto. In the following Andante, the first of three “violin concerto” movements, Nikolitch shows that he is as superlative a violin soloist as he is a conductor, as unerring in his understanding of lyrical eloquence as he is of dramatic timing. He never puts a foot wrong. Neither does Pentatone’s production, which keeps the perspectives steady (for example, the violin is properly balanced with the ensemble and not pulled forward for the cadenzas). The range, transparency and tonal veracity of the recording offer a total vindication of SACD. This is a tremendous disc. Nalen Anthoni (January 2009)

 

Symphonies Nos 18-24, 26, 27, 50 & K135

Academy of Ancient Music / Christopher Hogwood

(Decca)

This is surely one of the most important of the year's record releases. It should, and does, represent a milestone in the whole business of 'authentic instrument' recordings: for here we have a substantial body of music, much of it at the heart of the standard repertory, being recorded by one of the major British companies and by the leading London body specializing in music of the period. The enterprise acquires a certain internationalism from the use of Jaap Schroder, the Dutch violinist, to lead the orchestra (and in fact to direct it jointly with the harpsichordist, Christopher Hogwood), and from the use of Neal Zaslaw, a professor of music at Cornell University, as musicological consultant, to advise on such matters as editions and texts, the proper forces to use for the most authentic realization of each symphony, and the physical disposition of those forces (over which contemporary practices were followed: it may not have much direct effect on the sound one hears, except in such obvious matters as having first and second violins on opposite sides, but it certainly affects the way the performers interrelate while playing). On the evidence of this first release, I am inclined to greet the venture with enthusiasm and delight. 

It will not be to everyone's taste. To put it over-simply: the traditional way of playing Mozart, on a modern symphony orchestra, and indeed even on a modern chamber orchestra, has been to emphasize two things: the line of the music (usually of course the first violin part), and the texture as a totality. Here the effect, and presumably to some degree the intention, is that the music is presented more in terms of a series of lines, or as a texture that needs less to be blended or homogenized than to be evaluated afresh in its internal balance at any and every moment. It makes the music more complex and more interesting, certainly more challenging, to listen to. The listener may find that the familiar broad sweep of some of these movements is lacking, but he will generally find the compensations more than sufficient. Better still if he can avoid thinking of it that way, and try, rather, to envisage this as the kind of sound that Mozart (as far as anyone can tell) had in mind, and to recognize that the music was written in the way it was because this is what Mozart expected. Stanley Sadie (December 1979)

 

Symphonies Nos 25 & 29

English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten

(Decca)

Britten secures marvellous performances of these two symphonies by the 18-year-old Mozart. In the 'little' G minor he hrings out by the choice of moderate tempi and legato phrasing (listen to how lovingly he shapes the second subject of the finale, for example), the uneasy tension implicit in the two outer movements, without making the music sound aggressive or nervous. The Andante, warmly coloured by the two bassoons, moves at a gentle walking pace, yet never drags; the Minuet is strong and purposeful, with most distinguished wind playing in the Trio. The A major Symphony is no less well done, with muscular yet affectionate playing in the first and last movements, a glowing Andante, and a springy Minuet, with beautifully crisp dotted rhythms: I do not remember having enjoyed listening to it so much for a very long time. 

The mellowness and sensitivity of Britten's performances are matched by the warmth of the Decca recording, which ably reproduces the Snape sound. Neville Marriner's highly accomplished, brisker, and - to be frank - less penetrating performances of the same two symphonies are matched by a brighter but shallower recording from Argo: in a word, the two interpretations and recordings are absolutely different. To my mind, the Britten disc is a revelation. Robin Golding (June 1978)

 

Symphonies Nos 38-41

Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Sir Charles Mackerras

(Linn Records)

There is no need to argue the credentials of Sir Charles Mackerras as a Mozart interpreter, so let us just say that this double CD of the composer’s last four symphonies contains no surprises – it is every bit as good as you would expect. Like many modern-instrument performances these days it shows the period-orchestra influence in its lean sound, agile dynamic contrasts, sparing string vibrato, rasping brass, sharp-edged timpani and prominent woodwind, though given Mackerras’s long revisionist track-record it seems an insult to suggest that he would not have arrived at such a sound of his own accord. And in any case his handling of it – joyously supported by the playing of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra – is supremely skilled; rarely will you hear such well judged orchestral balance, such effective marrying of textural transparency and substance. The Jupiter in particular has a wonderful bright grandeur, yet reveals details in the brilliant contrapuntal kaleidoscope of the finale that too often go unheard.

Seldom, either, will you hear such expertly chosen tempi; generally these performances are on the quick side, but rather than seeming hard-driven they exude forward momentum effortlessly worn. Nowhere is this better shown in the slow movements (even with all their repeats they never flag, yet their shifting expressive moods are still tenderly drawn), but also conspicuously successful are the slow introductions to Symphonies Nos 38 and 39 (the former ominous but alert, the latter full of intelligent anticipation with shivery violin lines falling like cold rain down the back of the neck) and the Minuet movements of Nos 40 and 39 (whose cheeky one-in-a-bar lilt does wonders for its tootly clarinet Trio).

These are not Mozart performances for the romantics out there, but neither are they in the least lacking in humanity. No, this is thoroughly modern-day Mozart, full of wisdom and leaving the listener in no doubt of the music’s ineffable greatness. Lindsay Kemp (February 2008)

 

String Quintets

Arthur Grumiaux, Arpad Gérecz vns Georges Janzer, Max Lesueur vas Eva Czako vc

(Philips)

Of the six works Mozart wrote for string quintet, that in B flat major, K174, is an early composition, written at the age of 17. It’s a well-made, enjoyable work, but not a great deal more than that. The C minor work, K406, is an arrangement by Mozart of his Serenade for six wind instruments, K398. It’s difficult not to feel that the original is more effective, since the music seems to sit a little uncomfortably on string instruments. But the remaining four works, written in the last four years of Mozart’s life, are a different matter. The last string quintets from Mozart’s pen were extraordinary works, and the addition of the second viola seems to have pulled him to still greater heights. It has been suggested that Mozart wrote K515 and K516 to show King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia that he was a better composer of string quintets than Boccherini, whom the King had retained as chamber music composer to his court. There was no response, so he offered these two quintets for sale with the K406 arrangement to make up the usual set of three. K593 and K614 were written in the last year of his life. Refinement is perhaps the word that first comes to mind in discussing these performances, which are affectionate yet controlled by a cool, intelligent sensitivity. The recordings have been well transferred, and Grumiaux’s tone, in particular, is a delight to the ear.

 

String Quartets Nos 20-22

Quatuor Mosaïques

(Naive)

The Mosaïques’ recording of the 10 mature Mozart Quartets is completed by this release‚ so it’s time to salute an outstanding achievement. Apart from the clear‚ rich sound of the period instruments and the precise‚ beautiful tuning‚ what impresses about this Mozart playing is the care for detail‚ the way each phrase is shaped so as to fit perfectly into context while having its own expressive nuances brought out clearly. This often leads the quartet to use more rubato‚ to make more noticeable breathing spaces between sentences than many other groups do. 

In the first movements of both these quartets‚ for instance‚ the Mosaïques adopt a very similar tempo and tone to the Quartetto Italiano‚ but the Italians aren’t so rhythmically flexible; though the music is beautifully shaped‚ we move continually onwards at a steady pace‚ drawing attention to the overall effect. But with the Mosaïques we’re made to listen to and appreciate the significance of each detail as it unfolds. With this approach there might be a danger of sounding contrived‚ but even when adopting a mannered style‚ as in the Minuet of K499‚ the Mosaïques retain a strong physical connection with the music’s natural pulse – by comparison the Quartetto Italiano here seem a trifle heavy and humourless. The slow movements of both quartets are taken at a flowing pace‚ making possible an unusual degree of expressive flexibility‚ achieved without any sense of hurry. All repeats are made‚ including those on the Minuet’s da capo in K499. This means that the expansive K499 lasts more than 36 minutes. The longer the better‚ as far as I’m concerned. Duncan Druce (October 2001)

 

String Quartets Nos 14, 16 & 19

Casals Quartet

(Harmonia Mundi)

Mozart’s 1785 dedication of six quartets to Haydn reads: ‘May it therefore please you to receive them kindly and to be their Father, Guide and Friend.’ Respect is clear; but when the 96-bar Andante con moto of K428 offers a strong reminder of the 96-bar Affettuoso e sostenuto of Haydn’s Op 20 No 1, also in A flat and in compound time, affection becomes implicit too. Cuarteto Casals don’t stint on tender warmth, ensemble expertly balanced and chorale-like in sonority. Yet clarity remains uppermost. An un coagulated sound is an ever-present aspect of this ensemble’s style. So is an emotional and intellectual dimension, probed through trenchant attack, elastic lines, ductile phrases and a wide dynamic range.

Not a word on ‘authenticity’ or ‘historically informed’ practices. Rather a scant regard for superficial niceties. Pick K465 to represent the Casals’ approach, the Adagio introduction unequivocal in explaining why these 22 bars of startling false relations – A flat/A, G flat/G – and grating progressions like the chromatic sforzando clashes of F sharp/G between cello and viola raised a ruckus in its day. Reach the development of the main Allegro and the tense, driving power of the playing lifts the music to another level of interpretative penetration. Most arresting of all is the slow movement, for these musicians a sequence of pain and abraded nerve-ends behind a smokescreen of Andante cantabile. Cuarteto Casals shatter a glass ceiling of historic inhibitions and camouflage nothing. Enshrined herein is a rare order of musicianship. Nalen Anthoni (Awards issue 2014)

 

String Quartets Nos 15 & 19. Divertimento, K138

Quatuor Ebène

(Erato)

A delicately breathy sotto voce at the beginning of K421 presages promise. Often this opening isn’t inward enough and sometimes the tempo is too fast for Allegro moderato. The Quatour Ebène trust Mozart’s directive; and Otto Jahn’s belief that this dusky movement is also an ‘affecting expression of melancholy’ makes sense at this pace. Their modes of expression play a crucial role too. These musicians bend and straighten, relax and tighten with micro-dynamic changes. All are intuitively sensed and go beyond literal obedience to the written markings. Yet pulse is steady and nothing is piecemeal or dislocated. Individual character comes first though. The Minuet is very forcefully played. Constanze, who was having their first baby, thought some passages suggested birth pangs. But the Trio, in the tonic major, is slower, solicitous, with rubatos critically timed. Interpretation is always carefully thought through and heartfelt. Turn to K465 and hear the Adagio introduction paced to give the ‘false relations’ their due, the contrasts in the main Allegro properly stressed and the element of cantabile in the slow movement most lyrically expressed. Nalen Anthoni (November 2011)

 

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