Mozart: Violin Concertos Nos. 3 and 4 (CD review)

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:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa