Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Frank Peter Zimmermann plays Mozart

The earliest recordings I possess are from the year 1900 (Arnold Rosé, and Pauline Viardot). As someone who spent much of his youth – including three years at Oxford – studying history, I am extremely interested in how things used to be, and how we have arrived at here, from there. Very interested to hear how a Mozart violin concerto was played in 1916 – or 1776. However, for music listening in 2016, give me 2016 sound and playing any day, all things being equal. In my earlier years, there was a battle of ownership between harpsichordists and pianists for keyboard music prior to the later years of the eighteenth century. The battle then switched to the mediocre “fortepiano”. Fortunately, the grand piano seems to have won the battle, and we can all sit back and enjoy Yevgeny Sudbin playing Scarlatti sonatas, or Igor Levin playing the Beethoven Diabelli variations, or Bach Goldberg variations – on a grand piano, albeit with a knowledge of the style and limitations of the earlier eighteenth century.

A similar battle occurred with boy trebles and male altos in the music of Bach, Handel and the like. Non-vibrato white tone was the order of the day in the 1970s and 80s if you wished to be politically correct. Happily, the boy trebles and male altos appear to have ceded the field, or at least agreed to share it. A sense of style and history is important, but it should not be carried to extremes. At the premier of Beethoven's violin concerto, the soloist is reputed to have played an improvisation of his own between the first and second movements; should we emulate that tradition? Nigel Kennedy probably would.

An appreciation of the age in which a piece of music was written – and why – is important. We know that 17th and 18th century orchestras would (usually) be small – even though Mozart exclaimed in delight at an orchestra with 60 violins playing one of his symphonies. He is lucky a current musicologist was not around at the time to admonish him. Music does not often transcend the medium for which it is written; string quartets do not translate happily into music for a string orchestra, although an exception might be made for Beethoven's Grosse Fuge that really strains – and perhaps at times over-strains – the string quartet medium. The recording by Otto Klemperer with the strings of the Philharmonia – presumably the Felix Weingartner transcription – is pretty convincing. Wilhelm Furtwängler and Adolf Busch also both recorded string orchestra versions.

A battle yet to be won is that of the anaemic sound produced by “period instrument” players, hailed to be a glorious return to what the composer may have envisaged prior to the later decades of the nineteenth century. Granted, this olde style gives valued employment to string players who would be all at sea trying to navigate Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in a major orchestra. But it does no favour to the more sophisticated and demanding ears of 2016. And as for “gut strings”, lauded as the new Holy Grail of olde musike; I started my violin playing with gut strings and they quickly went out of tune, or broke. Jascha Heifetz always used gut strings (except for the “E” string, which was always the first to break, in my day). I suspect that Fritz Kreisler also used gut strings – spun metal was in its infancy, in those days. I suspect most modern critics cannot tell what string fabrication anyone is using; I certainly cannot. Yet they continue to pontificate about “gut strings” as if their use makes a considerable audio difference.

All this as a long-winded introduction to my pleasure in listening to Frank Peter Zimmermann playing Mozart violin concertos (numbers 2 and 5, plus the Sinfonia Concertante) with the Chamber Orchestra of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. A nice light touch from both orchestra and soloist, without any fake 18th century sounds that so plagued recent violin recordings by the marvellous Vilde Frang (Mozart) and equally marvellous Alina Ibragimova (Bach), where both recordings were spoilt for me by the ham-fisted accompaniment of Jonathan Cohen and a motley group that calls itself Arcangelo. Gurr! Zimmermann, Radoslaw Szulc and the Bavarians show how Mozart can sound appropriately fine in 2016 without resorting to stylistic gimmicks, tambourines, arch-lutes or sack-butts. The sound on this second CD from Hänssler is light, airy and never heavy and romantic, and Zimmermann's set of the Mozart concertos can take its place beside the Grumiaux set from the 1960s. In the Sinfonia Concertante, by which time Mozart was appreciably more mature in his instrumental writing, Zimmermann and Antoine Tamestit are perfectly matched and perfectly balanced and we are given a more-or-less ideal performance of this masterpiece. It is good to know that in this gimmick-crazed 21st century where everything has to be “new”, that a few good, solid classic values are still in evidence in musical performances. Tempos in eight of the nine movements on this CD are fine, with me, but I take exception to the second movement of K 219, marked adagio. This simply sounds wrong, to me, dispatched at this speed.

And that is all from me for a time, while I go off to France in search of seafood and the local cuisine of Provence.

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