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The finest recordings of Mozart’s violin concertos
Little more than 50 years ago, it was widely thought Mozart had composed eight violin concertos. Most notorious of all was the so-called Adelaide (‘No. 8’), which Marius Casadesus (uncle of pianist Robert) claimed in 1933 to have restored from an authentic two-stave manuscript. It was duly published, premiered by Jelly d’aranyi and even recorded by Yehudi Menuhin before, in 1977, Casadesus confessed it was all a hoax and entirely his own work. ‘No. 6’ in E flat was claimed by Mozart’s near-contemporary Johann Friedrich Eck to have been played to him by the composer. Rigorous stylistic analysis and comparison with Eck’s own music in the late 1970s revealed the Mozart story was almost certainly a product of Eck’s colourful imagination.
‘No. 7’ in D K271a – sometimes known as the Kolb, after Salzburg violinist Franz Xaver Kolb – remains a subject for heated debate. The problem here is that it is indisputably a fine piece, full of memorable ideas, so much so that several experts have conceded it could at least in part be by Mozart. The jury is still out, the official verdict being that its authorship is ‘doubtful’ rather than merely ‘spurious’. Which leaves five genuine, thoroughly authenticated concertos – No. 1 in B flat K207, No. 2 in D K211, No. 3 in G K216, No. 4 in D K218 and No. 5 in A K219, all composed in Salzburg in 1775, although it is possible that No. 1 may date from a couple of years earlier.
Remarkably, Mozart was just 19 years of age at the time, although no less astonishing is the fact that he was effectively a spare-time violin prodigy.
his father Leopold, author of a highly influential Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing (1756) and a fine orchestral player, constantly despaired at Mozart’s reluctance to apply himself to his
Leopold Mozart despaired at his son’s reluctance to apply himself to the violin
violin studies. Yet it would seem he had the kind of natural talent that made practising almost an irrelevance. Aged seven, he made his concerto debut with the Salzburg Court Orchestra having been recently appointed second vice-kapellmeister, and by the time he composed his own violin concertos he was a seasoned soloist. Two years later, following a concert in Munich, for which he did practise, he wrote excitedly to his father ‘I played as though I was the greatest fiddler in all Europe,’ to which his father replied despondently that if only he’d play with his ‘whole heart and mind’, he probably was! Antonio Brunetti, who became concertmaster of the Salzburg Court Orchestra in 1777, despaired that Mozart ‘could play anything, if he put his mind to it.’ Mozart was also an accomplished-enough viola player to perform in an ad hoc quartet whose other composer-members were ★aydn, Dittersdorf and Vanhal.
It is still unclear as to why Mozart should have devoted himself at this time with such intensity to the violin concerto, a genre to which he never returned. The most likely explanation is that he had become exasperated performing other composers’ music and wanted some of his own to play. Yet we know that Kolb and Brunetti both played the concertos, as Mozart went to the considerable trouble of writing a new central Adagio for No. 5 because Brunetti found the original (which survives as
K261) ‘too artificial’. There is also circumstantial evidence that the separate Rondo in B flat K269 may have been composed for the First Concerto as a replacement for the original at Brunetti’s request. Indisputable, however, is the crescendo of creative imagination that occurred during this period, with each concerto effectively trumping its predecessor, climaxing in the A major K219, which breaks with convention by first announcing the soloist via a brief, slow interlude.
Opinions as to how these exquisite pieces should be performed have changed beyond all recognition since they were first recorded. Yet listening through the 40-odd complete cycles available, I was surprised how quickly the ear adjusted (for the most part) to each performance’s stylistic proclivities, whenever soloist, orchestra and conductor/director achieved a musical symbiosis at the highest level. In the end it came down to four recordings that captivated so entirely I could barely keep my hand off the repeat button….
Turn the page to discover the best recordings of Mozart’s Violin Concertos Nos 1-5
Fiddle fiddle: recorded by Yehudi Menuhin, Mozart’s Adelaide Concerto was a hoax written by Marius Casadesus (far right)
Family ties:Mozart composing in Vienna; (below) disgruntled dad, Leopold