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MOZART: Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major; Violin Concerto No. 4 in D Major; Violin Sonata No. 22 – Ray Chen, violin/ Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival Orch./Christoph Eschenbach, p. & cond. – Sony

MOZART: Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, K. 216; Violin Concerto No. 4 in D Major, K. 218; Violin Sonata No. 22 in A Major, K. 305 – Ray Chen, violin/ Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival Orch./Christoph Eschenbach, p. & cond. – Sony 887654 47752, 67:00 ****:

Recorded 21-23 July 2013 at the annual Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, these refreshing Mozart performances rather elevate the “virtuoso” status of Ray Chen into someone more “musical.” The suave solo writing by the nineteen-year-old Mozart for Salzburg in 1775 combines affectionate lyricism in K. 216 with an unfettered brio that Chen and Christoph Eschenbach engage with breezy affection. Some may feel Chen’s approach remains over-refined, perhaps too restrained. Chen supplies his own cadenzas that exploit the rich verve of the opening Allegro while adding fioritura within the tasteful standards of Mozart’s time.

The endless miracle of song in the central Adagio benefits from some lovely dialogue from Chen with two flutes. The young Mozart had absorbed the French style into his own expressiveness, along with the Italianate lyricism he knew from Boccherini and the Cremona violin masters.  Double stops and harmonic runs proceed from Chen in his cadenza, still meditative and arioso in the spirit of the heavenly sonority of the song. The movement ends with a drone figure applied from Eschenbach’s responsive ensemble that provides the aerial music an earthy folk idiom. The charming French Rondeau invokes a flighty, witty spirit, rife with sudden injections of fortes and instrumental curlicues.  The brilliant filigree will become fertile in the manner of Tartini and the French court, at once. Nice horn work from the Schleswig-Holstein players to fill out the frothy mix. Chen’s brief cadenza adds a martial note or two in playful colors. The last pages ring with affection and youth, of which Mozart possesses an endless supply.

The French-style D Major Concerto has certainly had its expert interpreters, like Oistrakh, Grumiaux, and Menuhin. A fanfare theme and a sprightly secondary tune combine in the opening Allegro for a ‘galant’ style excursion that moves blithely in the manner of Locatelli augmented by a Salzburg genius. Chen negotiates the playful shifts of high and low registers with smooth facility. Eschenbach adds his own, sudden martial accents and fluent oboe colors without any break in the flowing line. The mock-march sensibility extends into Chen’s cadenza, rather virtuosic in ways suited to Fritz Kreisler.  Eschenbach and Chen, however, do succumb to a typical pitfall to take the sweet, operatic Andante cantabile too slowly, more adagio, a seduction avoided most effectively by Jiri Novak in his classic rendition with Vaclav Talich.  The final movement, Rondeau: Andante grazioso – Allegro ma non tanto, combines two dance impulses, a stately contredanse and a vivacious gigue. Chen hustles and slithers through the various filigree – including rapid double stops – with smiling aplomb.  The witty blending of the tunes at the coda testifies to the richness of a spectacular, teenaged composer’s musical imagination.

When Christoph Escenbach sits at the keyboard to accompany Ray Chen in a Mozart Violin Sonata in A, Eschenbach emulates his own mentor, conductor George Szell, who late in his career played Mozart accompaniments for both Joseph Szigeti and Rafael Druian. The 1778 A Major Sonata derives from Mozart’s Op. 1 set of six, often designated as his “Mannheim” or “Palatinate” Sonatas for Princesss Maria Elisabeth. The two movement structure typifies the tradition set by Mozart’s mentor, J.C. Bach. The 6/8 Allegro di molto brings out exuberant ensemble from our principals, Chen’s 1702 “Lord Newlands” Stradivarius in fluent confidence in unison, sixths, and inversion with Eschenbach, as required. Musicologist Alfred Einstein characterizes this music as “ideally untroubled, full of cheerfulness, freshness, and innocence.” The second movement proffers a Tema and (6) Variations, the first of which, a piano solo, reminds us that the youthful Eschenbach excelled as a keyboard virtuoso. The remainder of the variants, duets, include on in the minor mode, while the last switches the meter. Music of ‘galant’ nobility, it achieves a magical grace here in the exquisite salon which Chen and Eschenbach recreate.

—Gary Lemco

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