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 Recording of the Week  Isabelle Faust plays Mozart's Violin Concertos

Compared to some other violin concertos (say, those of Brahms or Tchaikovsky), Mozart’s five examples of this genre – newly recorded as a complete set by Isabelle Faust and Il Giardino Armonico – represent rather a paradox. The later and more Romantic works are, in a sense, simpler – high “art” music, designed to be listened to by an appreciative, attentive audience. Mozart’s concertos, by contrast, were designed “merely to be heard” (to quote Faust’s notes) – commissioned as palatial background music by the Archbishop of Salzburg who was Mozart’s employer at the time. As a result, some people have been tempted to question their musical profundity and worth – the more so given the relative lack of virtuosic fireworks in the solo part, compared to Mozart’s later works incorporating a violin soloist. Is this just concertante wallpaper?

Isabelle Faust
Isabelle Faust

Well, perhaps. But even if that’s true, it’s Mozart’s wallpaper, so we should still expect something special. And in fact there are numerous hints in the five works of the composer sneaking little bits of defiance into these commissions, imposed on him by a stifling environment that he seems rather to have resented. Faust highlights in her accompanying notes a constant trickle of teasing thematic and textural nods to his operas and chamber music, showing that Mozart was by no means content to just churn out five forgettable boilerplate works, but was constantly slipping in reminders – perhaps to himself as much as to any listener who might have caught the rather oblique references – of his musical achievements in other fields.

Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that these works require a very different approach from the earnest, soul-baring concertos of other composers; it would be wrong to try to fill them with a sense of autobiographical Angst and struggle that is completely alien to their nature and genesis. This is, after all, what today we would call “light music”, and no less enjoyable for that if taken on its own merits. Capturing both sides of the music’s spirit – taking it seriously, but not too seriously, so to speak – is a difficult feat and requires, I think, a rare sense of maturity and subtlety. Isabelle Faust and Il Giardino Armonico manage it – bringing out the shades of colour in the music and revelling in the characteristic phrases, but never forcing the issue. It goes without saying that Faust's tone is just as sweet here as in her other recordings, and she puts just the right amount of playful rubato into the cadenzas without straying into self-indulgence.

One interesting innovation that Faust has added is to incorporate a new set of cadenzas and cadential phrases composed by Andreas Staier, with (as he freely admits) a more polyphonic approach to violin-writing than Mozart’s own violin works suggest. Mozart was, Staier reminds us, a pianist first and a violinist second, and it’s on this basis that he’s taken the artistic liberty of introducing double-stopping and a primarily harmonic, rather than melodic, approach to the cadenzas. This kind of improvisation is what Mozart would have been most at home with – elaborating figured bass and thinking chordally, rather than being primarily concerned with playing with specific motifs – and Staier makes a good case for his approach. I have to say that nothing about the cadenzas stood out as particularly daring to my ears – but this if anything vindicates Staier’s thinking.

Anyone – well, any concert violinist, anyway – can tug at the heart-strings with the sublime slow movements of Bruch and Mendelssohn, or dazzle the ear with fiendish Paganini. But virtuosity and passionate drama aren’t everything, and it takes a special gift to make this lighter concerto fare really work, to perform it in the spirit it was intended to be heard. This is Faust’s triumph in this album, and the results of her efforts remind us that even in frustratingly restrictive musical circumstances, Mozart’s gift could not be suppressed. A delightful set of concertos, and just the thing to lift the spirits as the nights begin to draw in.

Mozart: Complete Violin Concertos

Isabelle Faust (violin), Il Giardino Armonico, Giovanni Antonini

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC