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Mozart: the Complete Violin Concertos

This recording for Nonesuch captures the restlessness of the young Mozart

In Mozart’s day, before the artist became obsessed with the preciousness of his own creativity, composers composed in quantity, bulk, if you like. Besides his 22 operas, 41 symphonies, 27 piano concertos and 23 string quartets, not to mention dozens of cassations, divertimenti, sonatas and Masses, Mozart wrote five violin concertos. Most later composers were happy to let their reputations rest with just the one. They noticed that overproductivity diffuses impact, gave repetitive manufacture to the machine, and persuaded us that the ideal creative artist was a unique individual, touched by divinity, whose every utterance was a revelation or insight. This greatly increased the value of single works. We paid for the artist’s struggle.

Mozart’s five violin concertos give every impression of having been composed without any struggle at all. They flow exuberantly in easy major keys, exuding abundant graceful melody, often in place of development of existing themes, and demanding refined rather than show-off virtuosity – traits that make them classics of the elegant but somewhat shallow fashion known as the stil galant. They were written in Salzburg during the composer’s teenage years, the first in 1773 following a triumphant tour of Italy, the other four in 1775 after an extended visit to Vienna during which Mozart revelled in acclaim but failed to secure any permanent patron. This disappointment intensified the resentment he already felt for his native city, where his employer, the Catholic Church, demeaned him, underemployed him and permitted him to tour only with the greatest reluctance. It is not known which violinist they were written for; it could have been himself. His father reckoned he’d have been a top player if he had worked at it.

On the present Nonesuch double CD, the Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, with his own band, Kremerata Baltica, captures a certain pent-up frustration in the five concertos that he missed 20 years ago when he last recorded them for Deutsche Grammophon. His singing line wants to break free from its respectable constraints. One senses an underlying restlessness in the solo part that becomes more pronounced with each new work. The last episode of the last movement of the last concerto is a Turkish march with a spiky melody and snappy, somewhat threatening col legno (“with the wood of the bow”) effects, which Kremer and Kremerata spit out angrily.

The queasy rise-and-fall chromatic scales would have disturbed the genteel gallants, and prefigure Don Giovanni.

The rondo theme set against this insubordinate march is an inoffensive courtly minuet, which Kremer playfully varies with winking ornaments and knowing slurs. In only a few months, Mozart would tell the archbishop where he could stick his job and set up in Vienna as the first freelancer in music history.

The band, comprising musicians from the three Baltic states – Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania – plays with tight ensemble and gleamingly honed tone, heard especially in individual long notes held and swelled excitingly through the precise orchestral bustle. In Concerto No 1, the fiddles pant out the pumping quavers under the simple, opening, scale-wise theme. Kremer’s ornaments squeal like a 19-year-old gap-year student freed from adult control for the first time. The composer’s juvenile worldliness is apparent. The last rondo episode of Concerto No 3 was identified as a folk melody from Strasbourg only as recently as 1956, since when the work has been called the Strassburger. Mozart’s arpeggiated parabolas, which spring from the galumphing theme, remain just within the boundaries of polite convention.

All four 1775 works have three movements, including an allegro opening, a slow middle mostly in the dominant and a rondo finale. There was nothing shameful about creating by formula in the pre-industrial age. The antidote to repetition lay in the cadenzas that live performers were expected to improvise on the spot. Few artists risk this nowadays and it is a shame that Kremer has chosen to retain the “extemporisations” composed by Robert Levin for his previous recording. This is not because they are unsuitable or inappropriate. They deploy with scholarly dexterity the themes of the movement thus far, nodding towards the present in juicy, wrong-note ornaments and brief excursions to distant keys. It is only that the chance to break free of the written notes anew, a saving grace that Mozart himself provides, has not been taken.

Kremer, who has championed Astor Piazzolla, John Adams and Philip Glass (he will play Glass’s only violin concerto at the Proms on 12 August), is a diverse enough performer to have improvised tellingly in these solo spots. It’s an opportunity wasted.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, King and Country