Recording of April 2006: Mozart: Violin Concertos 3–5

MOZART: Violin Concertos 3–5
Violin Concertos 3–5, K.216, 218, 219
Andrew Manze, violin; The English Concert, Andrew Manze, dir.
Harmonia Mundi HMU 807835 (CD). 2006. Robina G. Young, prod.; Brad Michel, eng. DDD. TT: 75:45
Performance *****
Sonics *****

Mozart wrote the last three of his five violin concertos in September, October, and December of 1775, respectively; he was just short of his 20th birthday. In inspiration and accomplishment, these three are miles ahead of the first two (the earlier of which may have been composed in 1773; the second was composed in June 1775). Nothing is off the rack: While the first two are clearly modeled on works of late-Baroque composers in form, these three are looser and more original, and each finale contains a surprise—an interruption of the main theme with something dazzling, and, in Concerto 5, a genuine surprise with the inclusion of some so-called Turkish music: an odd, clanging, rhythmic interlude in the middle of an otherwise perfectly "sensible" Rondeau: Tempo di menuetto. Precisely what aroused the new burst of genius is anyone's guess, but the works are marvelous pieces filled with great tunes both loving and merry.

406rotm.jpgThese concertos are incredibly easy to like, and have been recorded dozens of times. Grumiaux's readings (on Philips) are vigorous and gleaming, and are recommended as highly as I am about to recommend these; Tetzlaff's (Virgin) are exciting in the outer movements and warm in the Adagios; Oistrakh's (EMI) are overly Romantic; and Standage's tone (under Hogwood on L'Oiseau-Lyre) is a bit too shiny, but the period-instrument playing is excellent. Now Andrew Manze has thrown his hat into the ring, with period instruments of course, and anyone fearing that he was stuck in a Baroque mode need not have. With his usual stupendous ear for detail, Manze has sculpted each of these gems with great warmth and intelligence.

Concerto 3 opens with a tune Mozart had used for an aria in his serenata Il re pastore a few months earlier. Manze tapers the end of this instantly catchy melody oddly but interestingly, making you wonder what's next and softening its cocky attitude. The interplay for violin and oboe at the dead center of the movement makes the disappearance of the oboes—and their substitution with flutes—in the second movement quite a statement. And indeed, the Adagio requires the soft sound of flutes; it is one of the most beautiful "arias" Mozart ever wrote. Manze's solo entry is exquisitely ghostly; he walks into the divine setting on tiptoes and keeps the mood of sweet sadness going.

One might argue about the absolutely vibrato-free tone in the violin's upper register here and in all the slow movements—it adds a slightly vinegary flavor—but it's entirely a matter of taste. I find it haunting as it appears here and in the first movement of Concerto 5, where it enters with a whisper of an Adagio in the midst of a nicely jolly Allegro—and the fact that Manze's tone can be full and his attacks startlingly strong tell us that he is making a conscious choice. Again, in Concerto 4's opening movement, Mozart keeps the orchestral register low and the solo violin flying very high; he must have wanted just such a textural difference, and Manze is careful to make it clear. By the time we get to the rambunctious "Turkish" music in Concerto 5, with bows bashing wildly into strings, we realize that Mozart's love of contrasts, which he found funny, are being gloriously honored by Manze and his group. Mozart never wrote another violin concerto; he didn't have to.

Throughout all of these concertos, we never feel that a tempo has been exaggerated in either direction, and the English Concert is more than adept: the horns and winds are just right, and the strings—16 of them—think and play as one. Manze composed all of the cadenzas, and they are as interesting and idiomatic as if Mozart himself had written them. The recording is ideally balanced; the soloist comes out of the orchestral fiber exactly as needed, and all balances are natural. This is an elegant, delightful recording, and already one of the year's best.—Robert Levine