Also, Sonata for Piano and Violin No. 22. Ray Chen, violin; Christoph Eschenbach, Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival Orchestra. Sony 88765447752.
This disc has a lot of good things going for it. First, Mozart wrote the material, always a good sign. Second, young Taiwanese violinist Ray Chen, who has won numerous awards and made several well-received albums for Sony, does a splendid job with the music. Third, we have the renowned pianist and conductor Christoph Eschenbach along with the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival Orchestra accompanying Chen. And fourth, the Sony engineers do a fine job with the sound.
Of course, the question with any album like this, no matter how good it may be, is, Do I need another one? Presumably, most classical-music fans already have one or more favorite recordings of Mozart’s violin concertos, so is it worth investing in yet another one just to see how it measures up? Which is why reading multiple reviews of new recordings comes in handy and, one also assumes, why you are reading this particular review today. Well, I’ll tell you in advance that this reviewer found Mr. Chen’s performances quite good. However, for my own money, I’m not sure I would invest in yet another recording when I already own excellent renditions from the likes of Mutter (DG, JVC, and EMI), Grumiaux (Philips), St. John (Ancalagon), and Oistrakh (EMI). But that’s just me; I haven’t a lot of money to spend on experimentation. For collectors who do have plenty to spend, however, and certainly for the many admirers of Ray Chen the disc seems a worthy investment.
Anyway, Chen starts the program with the Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K. 216, which Mozart wrote along with all five of his violin concertos in Salzburg in 1775 when he was only nineteen years old. Mozart was more of a piano guy, so he didn’t take the violin concerto very far before he died. Nevertheless, because he died relatively young, who knows what he may have done with the genre had he lived another thirty or forty years. In any case, No. 3 is fairly typical of the form, with an Allegro, an Adagio, and a closing Rondeau Allegro. It is not particularly adventurous, but it is Mozart, which means it’s always charming. Besides, despite Mozart’s age when he composed these things, he was a prodigy, a musical genius who had been composing since his early childhood. In terms of their development and maturity, therefore, the violin concertos are more like the work of a man twice Mozart’s years.
Chen seems more in tune with the lyrical qualities of Mozart than he was in a previous recording I reviewed of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, where he seemed more relaxed than dramatic or exciting. In both instances, though, Chen shows a terrific command of the instrument, his virtuosity never in question. But in the present Mozart, his perhaps natural penchant for understatement serves the music pretty well. Chen maintains a light touch on the strings, helping the concerto to bounce along with plenty of vim and vigor, yet not so fast that it loses any delicacy. I still don't think he throws himself into the music with the passion and enthusiasm of Anne-Sophie Mutter, but he does display a good range of emotions. There is an especially deep sense of pathos in the Adagio, where Chen seems most at home. There is also a delightful spirit to the final movement, where Chen's lyrical treatment of the faster sections elevates it above the ordinary.
Probably the single most outstanding characteristic of all the music on the album, though, is the sound of Chen's violin, a 1702 Stradivarius, the "Lord Newlands." It has a rich, fresh, effervescent tone that combined with Chen's fluid playing is quite easy to like. Or love, as the case may be.
The Violin Concerto No. 4 in D major, K. 218 is in the same fast-slow-fast structure as No. 3: Allegro, Andante cantabile, and Rondeau (Andante grazioso - Allegro ma non troppo). Despite its classical structure, the Fourth Concerto is more romantic and sinuous than the Third, and Chen makes the most of it. The Fourth may also be more familiar to listeners than the Third, which means listeners may have more predetermined conceptions about it. In any case, Chen retains the better part of the work's wit and sparkle, keeping the often capricious music flowing evenly. Still, I missed the degree of impetuosity found in some competing versions, leading me again to appreciate Chen's handling of the concerto's slow movement more than his work in the outer movements, as good as they are.
Now, call me an old fuddy-duddy (OK, you're an old fuddy-duddy), but I enjoyed the accompanying Sonata for Piano and Violin No. 22 in A major, K 305 best of all on the program. Here, Chen again shares the spotlight with Mr. Eschenbach, this time with Eschenbach on piano. Although this is primarily Chen's album, the Sonata rather favors the piano as much as the violin, particularly in the longer second movement. Even though the engineers appear to do what they can to emphasize the violin, Eschenbach's piano part is really what carries the piece. Be what may, the two performers together create a sweet, cheerful, bubbly concoction that foreshadows the work of Schubert a few years later.
Producer Florian B. Schmidt and balance engineer Aki Matusch recorded the album for Sony Music Entertainment at Christkirche Rendsburg-Neuwork, Germany in July 2013. The sound they obtained is ultra clear and clean due in part, I'm sure, to some relatively close miking. The clarity comes at the expense of some orchestral depth in the concertos, but for many listeners it might be a fair trade-off. The violin tone sounds natural enough, with a pleasant bloom on the strings, and the whole affair is reasonably smooth as well, with only the tiniest evidence of hardness on occasion.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: