Mozart: Violin Concertos Nos. 1-5 (CD review)

Baiba Skride, violin; Eivind Aadland, Swedish Chamber Orchestra. Orfeo C997201 (2-disc set).

By John J. Puccio

Latvian classical violinist Baiba Skride has won a ton of awards and recorded over a dozen albums. She is an excellent musician and a very attractive person. However, you might not notice any of that from the cover art on her Mozart Violin Concertos album, which features a picture that obscures her face and shows her seemingly about to drop one of her cherished Stradivarius violins. Ignore the cover picture. Listen to the music.

As we know, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was more of a piano guy than a violinist, which may explain why he wrote about twenty-three original, numbered piano concertos (OK, twenty-seven altogether, but the first four were mostly arrangements of other people’s work) and only five violin concertos. What’s more, Mozart wrote all of his violin concertos around 1775 while still rather young, nineteen or twenty, and then sort of gave up on the genre. His violin concertos are certainly tuneful and expressive, but he would leave it to others, like Beethoven and Brahms, to develop the violin concerto to its fullest potential.

Audiences for the past two hundred-odd years, though, have appreciated Mozart’s violin concertos for their appealing melodies and expressive style. Interestingly, although Mozart was also a violin prodigy, he obviously preferred the piano. Whatever, one usually has to buy two or three separate albums to own all five of the concertos by a single performer, so already it's a good deal to find Ms. Skride’s collection complete on two discs.

So, how does Ms. Skride handle the concertos, considering that almost every major violinist of the stereo age has recorded all or most of them? Competition is, indeed, deep, with Rachel Barton Pine, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Arthur Grumiaux, David Oistrakh, Lara St. John, and others leading the way. I suppose, as with anything in music, it obviously comes down to a matter personal taste. Each violinist has his or her own style, and certainly Ms. Skride adds her own distinctive and pleasing touch.

It helps that so accomplished an ensemble as the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, led by Elvind Aadland, ably accompany Ms. Skride. They are small enough to let her breathe, while large enough to provide a solid foundation for her performances. Together, they produce a well-executed, well-balanced set of concertos. Perhaps some of the aforementioned violinists provide more elegance or more vitality, but Ms. Skride holds her own in both departments. Maybe it helps, too, that for these recordings she plays the Yfrah Neaman Stradivarius, “kindly loaned to her by the Neaman family through the Beare’s International Violin Society.” It certainly has a lovely tone, clear and mellifluous.

Ms. Skride adopts tempos that are moderate, if slightly favoring the fast side. Still, they are not as quick as many historically informed performances can be, and they never seem hurried, rushed, or in any way frenetic. The Allegros are high spirited, the slow movements flowing and serene, She especially judges the popular Second Concerto well, imbuing it with the sparkle it needs, while also catching all the gentleness of the Andante, which contrasts well with her sensitive. lyrical treatment of the faster outer movements.

And so it goes. These are performances both lively and expressive on the one hand and delicate and perceptive on the other. I cannot see how they would fail to impress any lover of Mozart specifically or any lover of classical music more generally.

Ms. Skride fills out the second disc with three short violin pieces by Mozart: The Adagio in E major, K. 261; the Rondo in B-flat major, K. 269; and the Rondo in C major, K. 373. The performers apply the same skill here they did with the concertos.

Producer Johannes Kernmayer, supervisor Roland Kistner, and engineer Martin Klebahn recorded the concertos at Orebro, Musikhogskolan in October 2019. Although the sound displays a touch more bloom than I would have liked, it manages a good depth of field, and the orchestra allows the soloist a healthy degree of transparency. Ms. Skride is well integrated with the ensemble, neither too far out front nor too far back, and her contributions are well reproduced. Although the mid-to-upper bass appears a mite heavy, it does not obscure the soloist, whose contributions, as I say, remain realistically clean.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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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