The best recording of Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola

Richard Wigmore Mon 25th January 2016

The viola has equal billing with the violin in Mozart’s celebrated work, but the players don’t always reflect this. Richard Wigmore surveys the available recordings for those which address the balance most effectively

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

The Sinfonia concertante in E flat for violin and viola, K364, is an iconic work for many Mozart lovers, and arguably the greatest music he wrote in Salzburg. Yet, frustratingly, we know nothing about its origins. Apart from a sketch for the first-movement cadenza, the autograph has disappeared. Neither Mozart nor any of his contemporaries ever mentioned the work. It seems fair to assume that, inspired by the sinfonie concertanti he had encountered in Paris and Mannheim, he composed it, in summer or autumn 1779, for himself to play with the Salzburg court Konzertmeister Antonio Brunetti. But this remains guesswork.

While we should beware of reading Mozart’s music as emotional autobiography, it is tempting to relate the Sinfonia concertante’s darker undercurrents, rising to the surface in the C minor Andante, to his smouldering discontent with his Salzburg servitude. Less speculatively, the sonorous richness of the orchestral writing, with violas divided throughout, reflects Mozart’s contact with the crack Mannheim orchestra – though, needless to say, the power and technical mastery of the Sinfonia concertante surpass any possible models.

The work’s special tinta is determined by the husky timbre of the viola, Mozart’s own favourite string instrument. As Charles Rosen memorably observed in The Classical Style: ‘The very first chord...gives the characteristic sound, which is like the sonority of the viola translated into the language of the full orchestra.’ There is a sonorous depth to this opening Allegro maestoso, together with a quintessentially Mozartian expressive ambivalence. The initial entry of the soloists, suspended high above the orchestra’s cadential phrases, is one of the most magical moments in any Mozart concerto; and as several performances reveal, the music’s grandeur, poetry and almost erotic yearning need not preclude a vein of frisky playfulness reminiscent of Mozart’s violin concertos. The Andante is a transfigured love duet triste that touches depths of desolation found elsewhere only in the Andantino of the Jeunehomme Piano Concerto, K271, and the Adagio of the A major Piano Concerto, K488. Mozart’s own cadenza then pushes the music to a new pitch of chromatic pathos. After the bereft, disconsolate close, the contredanse finale, virtually unshadowed by the minor key, bounds in with a glorious sense of physical relief.

As a born musical democrat Mozart gives the soloists absolutely equal billing. He also brightens the viola’s innate duskiness with a scordatura tuning – writing the part in D major, with the strings tuned up a semitone. This increases the string tension, and brings the resonant open strings into play: essential in performances using gut strings; less crucial with the more powerful, metal-strung modern viola.

The Russian School

The Sinfonia concertante, then, is not a work for shrinking violets sporting what has been cruelly dubbed ‘the viola player’s innate inferiority complex’. No one could ever level that charge against William Primrose, who did so much to enshrine the viola’s status as a solo instrument. Primrose’s gift for making the instrument sing is eloquently heard in two recordings of the Sinfonia concertante, one from the 1951 Perpignan Festival with Isaac Stern, the second from 1956 with another famed violinist of the Russian school, Jascha Heifetz. Yet it’s hard to believe Primrose had much say over tempo. In the performance with Stern, conducted by Pablo Casals, the Andante becomes an adagissimo dirge, each phrase excavated for tragic import. In the outer movements the poetry and finesse of the two soloists is rather undermined by the orchestra’s ropey tuning and the clogged, frayed recorded sound. As in so many recordings, the soloists are too closely balanced.

At just over 14', with six laborious beats to the bar, the Stern-Primrose Andante is the slowest on disc, the tempo surely dictated by Casals. Five years later, the prime mover seems to have been Heifetz, in collusion with conductor Izler Solomon. At 8'42" (another record on disc), the Andante is now determinedly de-romanticised. Yet while the forward motion is welcome, it all feels too pressed, with strong beats over-emphasised. Heifetz’s bright, febrile violin tone and Primrose’s aristocratic viola are an uncomfortable match, both in the Andante and the hard-driven outer movements. Overall, there is virtuosity aplenty, with Heifetz in aggressive ascendancy, but precious little wit or affection. The violinist remarked that in his younger days he hadn’t much cared for the Sinfonia concertante. On this evidence, he still didn’t.

In the 1960s and early ’70s the Sinfonia concertante was a regular party piece of the father-son duo of David Oistrakh (invariably on viola) and Igor Oistrakh, two alpha males of the Russian school, complete with fast, juicy vibrato. The Oistrakhs’ power, confidence and uniformity of bowing, with ne’er a flicker of fragility or self-doubt, are mightily impressive. But all of their performances – one from 1963, rigidly conducted by Kirill Kondrashin; a BBC Proms DVD from the same year, with Yehudi Menuhin unconvincingly at the helm; and a self-directed Berlin Philharmonic version from 1971 – emerge as monumental and monolithic, with an air of macho competitiveness in Mozart’s conversational exchanges. In the Kondrashin recording, especially, the Oistrakhs milk the Andante as if it were Tchaikovsky.

Classical versus Romantic

With more than 40 current CD versions of the Sinfonia concertante, and a score of others available as downloads, I’ve inevitably been ruthless in this bird’s-eye survey. Chosen recordings are representative rather than necessarily superior to ones that are omitted. Many collectors will, with good reason, cherish one or other of the performances by Norbert Brainin and Peter Schidlof, of Amadeus Quartet fame, though for my taste their performances – even the 1953 one conducted, superbly, by Benjamin Britten – are short on individual imagination. And at the risk of alienating swathes of readers, I don’t find much illumination in the once-celebrated recording by Yehudi Menuhin and Rudolf Barshai. In a performance from the same 1960s vintage conducted by Colin Davis, the ever-cultivated Arthur Grumiaux consistently outguns the dusty-toned viola player Arrigo Pelliccia in polish and fantasy. Again, solo violin and viola are very forwardly balanced; and it’s hard to gauge whether it’s the fault of performers or recording that the potentially breathtaking entry of the soloists is forthright and prosaic. On the plus side are Grumiaux’s plangent tone and tenderly shaped phrasing in the Andante and the unusual urgency he brings to the minor-keyed themes in the opening movement.

In its day the Grumiaux-Pelliccia-Davis recording was regarded as a model of Classical elegance. The trickle of recordings that followed, subsequently intensifying into a gush, broadly divides into those that at least pay lip service to notions of 18th-century style, and those with unabashed Romantic leanings. Among the latter group is the version from the stellar pairing of Itzhak Perlman (violin) and Pinchas Zukerman (viola) in 1982. Under Zubin Mehta the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra sounds stodgy and inflated, with unalluring string tone. On their own terms, the soloists give a compelling, highly sophisticated performance, seeking out the darker side at every opportunity in the first movement, unleashing a virtuoso brilliance in the finale (as a born show-off, Mozart might well have relished their pitch-perfect spiccato) and combining a frank emotionalism with an understanding of the longer line in the Andante.

That feeling for whole paragraphs, beyond individual notes and phrases, is something I miss in another Romantically conceived performance, from Anne-Sophie Mutter and Yuri Bashmet in 2005. Although oboes and horns are soaked up in the tuttis, the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s playing is in a different class from that of the Israel Philharmonic. The dynamic here is that Mutter asserts, sometimes aggressively, while Bashmet questions, conjuring the most fragile of pianissimos in the quasi-recitative that opens the first-movement development. The outer movements are effective in a slightly too-knowing way. But the drooping, neurasthenic Andante, its tone set by the swoops and sotto voce wails of Mutter’s initial entry, is self-indulgent to the point of parody.

In another large-scale performance con amoreMidori and Nobuko Imai sound, in 2000, more spontaneous and alive. More than most conductors, Christoph Eschenbach heeds the first movement’s maestoso qualification. There’s a close dramatic interplay between the soloists: say, in the viola’s assuaging response to the violin’s anxious C minor theme in the first movement – an exchange movingly heightened in the recapitulation – or the impulsive whoops of delight in the finale. In the first two movements Midori and Imai flex the pulse liberally for expressive effect, though Midori’s hesitations and self-questionings in the Andante can sound a touch self-regarding.

Also essentially Romantic in conception is the 1983 recording from Gidon Kremer and Kim Kashkashian, with the Vienna Philharmonic under Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Launched by a massive opening tutti, braying horns to the fore, the first movement is the most reflective of any performance, with Kashkashian’s viola probing every recess of doubt and vulnerability. Even the final Presto, taken steadily, is tinged with wistfulness, and the Andante has a musing, quasi-improvisatory quality. There are, as always, controversial elements in Harnoncourt’s direction, from the Baroque-style double-dotting of the opening chords to the lunging accents in the Andante’s consolatory major-keyed theme (why? I wonder). But dull it ain’t.

Augustin Dumay and Veronika Hagen likewise go in for double-dotting in their self-directed Salzburg performance from 2000. Otherwise, their punchy first movement, shorn of maestoso breadth, is very different. This is a powerful, consciously projected reading, with Dumay the dominant influence. The soloists’ ubiquitous crescendo-diminuendo effects in the first movement sound studied; and I sense no joy in the jabbingly accented finale. Even at the third hearing I was in two minds about the Andante: ultra-nuanced, for sure, but tracing a profoundly affecting tragic journey from the shrouded pianissimo of Dumay’s opening entry to a cadenza of pained inwardness.

A performance from Philippe Graffin and, again, Nobuko Imai in 2006 is compromised by a boomy recording and some ragged orchestral ensemble. In the opening movement the phrasing of the bravura dialogues, with diminuendos on each volley of semiquavers, becomes predictable. As in her recording with Midori, Imai – unlike many viola players (although it’s not always possible to tell) – employs Mozart’s prescribed scordatura. The resultant tangy, throaty quality is especially effective in the combustible finale.

In her earliest recording, with Iona Brown and the refined Academy of St Martin in the Fields in 1989, Nobuko Imai eschews scordatura. Here the mellow darkness of her tone beautifully complements Brown’s sweetness and purity in a partnership of equals. The first movement marries maestoso amplitude with elegance and delicacy – a delightful buoyancy, too, in the soloists’ leaping ‘second subject’. Brown and Imai commune with unaffected sensitivity in the Andante, never straining for expressive effect, while the bouts of repartee in the finale have a puckish twinkle. This is definitely one for the shortlist.

Period Influence

The lightness of touch, solo and orchestral, makes the 1989 Brown-Imai recording one of the earliest to absorb some of the lessons of historically informed performance. Yet while period versions of Mozart’s symphonies are ten a penny, there are surprisingly few performances of the Sinfonia concertante using gut strings and natural horns. Rachel Podger and Pavlo Beznosiuk, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in 2009, are at their best in a frolicking, rollicking finale, spiced (uniquely in this survey) by cheeky touches of ornamentation. They also take the fermatas at the opening of the first-movement development as a cue for spontaneous elaboration, as Mozart himself would probably have done. Beyond this, their first movement is sturdy and straightforward, their Andante properly flowing, though less inward than some.

Podger and Beznosiuk form a close, democratic partnership. In two other period (or quasi-period) versions, the violinist tends to outshine the viola player in personality and sometimes sheer volume. In 2005, Thomas Zehetmair plays with a sense of fantasy that can leave the husky-toned Ruth Killius in the shade, though he tends to rush his fences in the outer movements. In the Andante, borne on an urgent forward motion, violin and viola often sound like a pair of viols.

In 2007 on Archiv, we hear a more massively conceived period performance (and we know that Mozart liked large orchestras) from Giuliano Carmignola and Danusha Waśkiewicz with Claudio Abbado’s Orchestra Mozart. This is arguably the best-conducted Sinfonia concertante on disc, unsurpassed in its long-range vision and placing and timing of orchestral detail. No other conductor articulates so clearly the swirls of semiquavers in the violas and basses, or makes the slow-burn crescendo in the opening tutti – Mozart beating the Mannheimers at their own game – so elementally thrilling. Abbado and his soloists ignore the composer’s prescribed maestoso. Pathos is at a premium. Instead, the first movement veers between high-voltage nervous intensity and a kind of edgy playfulness. As recorded, Waśkiewicz’s viola has a slightly dry, nasal timbre. But while she emerges as the more passive partner, she reacts sensitively to the impulsively inventive Carmignola, whether in the chaste sorrow of theAndante or the controlled delirium of the finale, where Abbado rightly allows the crucial oboes and horns their head.

In a Gramophone interview, violinist Maxim Vengerov revealed that he had talked to Rachel Podger and Trevor Pinnock before recording Mozart. You wouldn’t guess it from his recording with Lawrence Power from the 2006 Verbier Festival. At an ample 14'22", the opening movement out-maestosos all the competition. Yet breadth and pliability – no other performance bends the pulse so frequently – coexist with a quality of impassioned Romantic yearning. Needless to say, Power is every bit Vengerov’s equal in subtlety of nuance and tone colour. Both soloists, too, think long. The Andante tends to get slower as it proceeds, yet by the end it has reached a pitch of anguish matched by few performances. In the finale the soloists palpably relish egging each other on to new flights of fancy.

The Final Cull

If you prefer an expansive, Romantically inclined view of this Enlightenment masterpiece, Vengerov and Power are the prime recommendation. For a more Classical reading, Brown and Imai should be on anyone’s shortlist. My final choice, though, lies between three recordings I’ve yet to mention. The 2014 performance by Vilde Frang and Maxim Rysanov, accompanied by the gut strings of Jonathan Cohen’s Arcangelo, is something of a period-modern hybrid. But it works superbly. Frang’s pure, slender violin tone and Rysanov’s burnt-umber viola complement each other beautifully, each reacting creatively to the other. Vibrato is modest and tellingly varied. The finale races like the wind, yet the lightness of articulation precludes any sense of breathlessness – and there’s a lovely withdrawn pianissimoat the fleeting dip from E flat major to minor towards the end (bar 311). The luminous recorded sound and Cohen’s ear for balance ensure that inner strands – not least the palpitating violas in the Andante – are clearly audible.

Julia Fischer and Gordan Nikolić, with Yakov Kreizberg and the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra in 2006, are another near-perfect match in a performance that bristles with character. As in the Carmignola-Waśkiewicz recording, they downplay the maestoso in favour of a fiery sweep. But there is grace and – say, in the airborne ‘second subject’ – playfulness in abundance; and the very first entry of the soloists, only gradually emerging into consciousness, is as seraphic as you could wish. The Andante, phrased in broad paragraphs, combines a rarefied inwardness with an underlying agitation, Fischer’s silvery sweetness complemented by Nikolić’s mahagony depth. And you can almost see the smile on their faces as they vie in the finale’s bravura flights.

The pairings of Frang-Rysanov and Fischer-Nikolić both do the Sinfonia concertante proud. Yet forced to choose an outright winner, as the rules demand, I’ll plump for Iona Brown and Lars Anders Tomter with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra in 1995. It always boils down to taste, of course. Some might find this performance slightly understated. But Brown (in her final recording of a work she played scores of times) and Tomter seem to discern everything, and exaggerate nothing. One factor in my narrowly preferring them to their rivals is their pacing and characterisation of the opening movement: vital, exultant, yet with an underlying maestoso nobility. Phrasing is gracious yet never predictable, the flurries of semiquavers always ‘speak’, and the themes acquire fresh shades of meaning when they are reviewed in the recapitulation. Sorrow and grace commingle in the Andante, taken at an ideal, mobile tempo – a notch or two faster than on the Brown-Imai recording. When the soloists embroider the second theme with triplet arabesques, the mood briefly lightens to one of ethereal playfulness. The sheer élan of the finale, violin and viola sparring impishly, epitomises a crucial side of the young Mozart’s personality, even amid the frustrations of his Salzburg servitude. One tiny detail is Brown’s delighted upward surge as she sights the imminent prospect of the new key, B flat, near the begining. That just about sums it up.

The Romantic Choice

Maxim Vengerov vn Lawrence Power va 

Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra

(Warner)

By modern standards, this is Romantically tinged Mozart, with spacious tempos and malleable, con amore phrasing. But affection and minutely observed detail never obscure a sense of the longer line. Read the review

 

The (Quasi)Period Choice

Giuliano Carmignola vn Danusha Waśkiewicz va Orch Mozart / Claudio Abbado

(Archiv)

Claudio Abbado and period violinist Carmignola call the shots in a large-scale performance short on pathos perhaps, but long on Mozartian impetuosity and nervous intensity. Read the review

 

A Close Second

Julia Fischer vn Gordan Nikolić va Netherlands CO / Yakov Kreizberg 

(Pentatone)

Yakov Kreizberg’s fiery opening tutti sets the tone for a performance bristling with energy and imagination. Fischer and Nikolić dare expressive extremes in the Andante without ever letting the music sag. Read the review

 

Top Choice

Iona Brown vn Lars Anders Tomter va Norwegian Chamber Orchestra

(Chandos)

Superbly matched soloists and lithe ensemble playing in a joyous performance mingling subtlety of detail with a natural Mozartian flow. The Andante is profoundly moving in its subtlety and restraint. Read the review

 

Selected Discography

Date / Artists / Record company (review date)

1951  Stern, Primrose; Perpignan Fest Orch / Casals / Pearl GEMS0168 (12/53R)

1953  Brainin, Schidlof; ECO / Britten / BBC Legends BBCB8010-2

1956  Heifetz, Primrose; RCA Victor SO / Solomon / RCA 88697 76138-2 (6/88R)

1963 I & D Oistrakh; Moscow PO / Kondrashin / Decca 470 258-2DL2 (5/02R); 476 7288CC2

1963 I & D Oistrakh; Moscow PO / Menuhin / ICA ICAD5012 (11/99R, 9/11)

1964  Grumiaux, Pelliccia; LSO / C Davis / Philips 438 323-2PM2 (9/93)

1971  I & D Oistrakh; BPO / EMI 214712-2

1982  Perlman, Zukerman; Israel PO / Mehta / DG 415 486-2GH (12/85); 476 1651PR

1983  Kremer, Kashkashian; VPO / Harnoncourt / DG 453 043-2GTA2 (12/84R)

1989  Brown, Imai; ASMF / Decca 478 4271DB9 (6/91R)

1995  Brown, Tomter; Norwegian CO / Chandos CHAN10507 (3/99R)

2000  Dumay, Hagen; Camerata Academica Salzburg / DG 459 675-2GH (12/00)

2000  Midori, Imai; NDR SO / Eschenbach / Sony SK89488 (10/01)

2005  Mutter, Bashmet; LPO / DG 477 5925GH2 (10/05R)

2005  Zehetmair, Killius; Orch of the 18th Century / Brüggen / Glossa GCD921108 (7/09)

2006  Graffin, Imai; Brabant Orch / Avie AV2127 (9/07)

2006  Vengerov, Power; Verbier Fest CO / Warner 2564 63151-4 (4/07R)

2006  J Fischer, Nikolić; Netherlands CO / Kreizberg / Pentatone PTC5186 098 (11/07); PTC5186 453

2007  Carmignola, Waśkiewicz; Orch Mozart / Abbado / Archiv 477 7371AH2 (9/08)

2009  Podger, Beznosiuk; OAE / Channel Classics CCSSA29309 (12/09)

2014  Frang, Rysanov; Arcangelo / Cohen / Warner 2564 62767-7 (4/15)

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Gramophone. Subscribe to Gramophone

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