Concertos for violin and orchestra:
No.1 in B flat, K207
No.2 in D, K211
No.3 in G, K216
No.4 in D, K218
No.5 in A, K219
Concertone for two violins and orchestra in C, K190
Sinfonia concertante for violin, viola and orchestra in E flat, K364
Hagai Shaham (violin K190 & K364)
English Chamber Orchestra
Shlomo Mintz (violin; viola in K364)
Recorded June and September 2004 in Air Studios, Lyndhurst Hall, London
Reviewed by: Ying Chang
Reviewed: April 2005
CD No: AVIE RECORDS
AV2058 (3 CDs)
Duration: 3 hours
This is a distinctive and thought-provoking set. Although Shlomo Mintz’s own epigraph to the notes warns that there is no “original” way to play Mozart, this set will surprise anybody expecting a conventionally saccharine approach to these concertos.
There is not a trace of self-indulgence in Mintz’s renditions. In the astringency of his tone, in the presence and intimacy of the recorded sound, and in the very properly classical style in which each concerto is interpreted, this is severe, almost Puritan Mozart. It is an absolute antidote to the ‘easy listening’ and ‘crossover’ gloss that Mozart’s tunefulness can engender, and a corrective to thinking Mozart intellectually flabby or emotionally frivolous.
Mintz’s playing eschews display and jollity; he uses his undoubted technical mastery to produce strong-willed and absolutely controlled performances. The two double concertos unfold with the intellectuality of string quartets, and the first two solo concertos are given the same weight and seriousness as their later, better-known companions. Every phrase is effortlessly produced.
Those who sense such underlying seriousness, even sadness, in every piece of Mozart, and feel it is obscured by how universal his melodic and harmonic language has become, will welcome Mintz’s viewpoint. It is a breath of fresh life for these much-played works, albeit it will not be to every taste.
The intensity and concentration of the slow movement of K364 is a perfect example of where Mintz’s ‘attitude’ succeeds. Similarly, the poise and idiomatic balance of the earliest concertos, and the Concertone, gives them a form and beauty. The G major Concerto is the work to benefit most from Mintz’s approach – its straightness refreshing, almost revelatory.
But the same virtue that resists any emotional embellishment to the music also deprives it of any sense of joy or relaxation. The finale of K364 is a finely-turned gem, but does not relieve the mood of spiritual reflection engendered by the previous movement; the whole of K218 is subdued, almost dispiriting in its emotional effect, the finale without spring. Mintz does not dwell on the ends of phrasings – the opening entries in K219 are almost clipped, for example, and which can be off-putting. Those moments where Mintz does allow a touch of sentiment – such as at the beginning of K219’s first movement recapitulation – are all the more welcome.
Throughout, the inter-relation between soloist and orchestra is a delight, assisted by recorded sound that is very well balanced. Listen to the finale of K364, which opens with ravishing chamber music-like phrasing in the orchestra, and how seamlessly the solo entries then blend into the texture.
Insofar as Mintz also refers to the tradition and influence of his teachers, there is something recognisably Russian (and old-fashioned) about his playing; something reminiscent of Gilels’s or Richter’s Mozart playing: always civilised, sometimes too controlled.
This is a fine set. It could not easily be used to introduce the music to someone not already familiar with it; it is very difficult to listen to at one sitting, but it repays concentration. Some listeners will prefer a sweeter or showier approach, while Mintz’s single-mindedness and integrity will convince others. It is, as Mintz says, a “special project”.