MOZART: Violin Concertos – Isabelle Faust/ Il Giardino Armonico – Harmonia mundi (2 CDs) 902230.32, 67:53, 61:26 (11/26/16) *****:

(Isabelle Faust; violin/ cadenzas by Andreeas Staier)

Mozart’s brilliant violin concertos are much enhanced by the fiddling of Isabelle Faust and newly composed cadenzas.

Isabelle Faust has arrived at her preeminent position in the classical music world by an unusual route. Rather than putting personal flair and dazzling virtuosity to work on the popular repertoire in highly visible concerts and recording, she has developed a rigorously intellectual approach informed by an almost self-effacing aesthetic. As for imposing challenges on oneself, try to top this: her first three projects were Bartok, Beethoven (the complete sonatas) and the incomparable J.S Bach sei solo. She is much aided by her much-talked-about fiddle, the “sleeping beauty” 1704 Stradivarius. On the Bach partitas, this instrument was tamed with gut strings and a baroque bow. Ms. Faust illuminated the the architecture of these profound works with a celestial tone and unerring focus. While the pleasures of this recording are those of contemplation, the Beethoven sonatas, (with Alexander Melnikov) demonstrated a different sort of intelligence. Here the Strad sings with the full range human voices, now ravishing, now astringent, capable of both warmth and ice. But even in the fiery “Kreutzer,” the design of the work always takes priority over the over-sized emotional content. Her readings of both the Bach and the Beethoven are smart and agile and made an immediate impression, winning both the Gramophone and Diapason awards.

Before us, we have Ms. Faust with Il Giardino Armonico playing Mozart Violin Concertos and a couple of Rondos from early in his career as a composer. Compared to the aforementioned pieces, these are works of uncomplicated grace and lyrical beauty. Yet they do not seem like a natural choice for a musician who likes to delve into musical puzzles (as a hobby, Ms. Faust likes to read a composer’s correspondence to look for cues to the intentions of a piece). One wonders if the “sleeping beauty” would find the sweetness of the Mozart melodies too uncomplicated. These pieces were, in fact,  prompted by the always-interfering Leopold, who was concerned that his son was neglecting his violin, and thus becoming a one-instrument virtuoso, limiting as it were, his market value as a performer/composer. Meanwhile, Wolfi’s “other Daddy,” Papa Joe Haydn, had not yet entered his life as the first real challenge to the young composer to deepen his music with more harmonic argument. So what we have in these works are sweetness and light, endless melodic flattery and invention, but with a whiff of vapid predictability in the ritornellos. In the end, we trust this probing artist to find a new angle on the familiar repertoire.

The very first concerto penned by the teenaged Mozart is K.207. It begins with a bright allegro with two horns leading what sounds like a cheerful hunting party. The violin’s sweet and pure voice sweeps in and flows brightly along with shimmering sixteenth notes. As the orchestra steps aside, we can hear that the “sleeping beauty” is in an especially fine mood. It is all very jovial, with tutti sections set against fancy passage work and clever melodic ideas. But suddenly, there is a pause, and Ms. Faust steps forward while the band holds its breath and delivers a long but thoroughly engaging cadenza, replete with double stops and little chordal passages as if the violin were giving a harmonic lecture to all the little mischievous melodies. Of course, my astute readers know that there are no cadenzas by Mozart, so who has provided this addendum to the piece, and how dare he? Of course, it is none other than Mr Andreas Staier, one of Harmonia mundi’s eminent scholar/musicians, famous for bringing a fresh interpretation (as well as brilliant musicianship) to the 18th-century repertoire.  (See the review on this site of his 2016 recording of the Schubert trios).

The very slow adagio is operatic in feel with dazzling adornments and dutiful playing by the ensemble. Again a cadenza supervenes just when some heads might begin to nod. Likewise, the inspiration is high and the violin alternately graceful and acrobatic. The galloping Presto is welcome as we are impatient for our third cadenza, which further demonstrates the dual skills of Staier and Faust.

In fact, there will be cadenzas in every movement of all six concertos. It is an artistic notion not without risks and will not be to everyone’s liking. In style, these cadenzas stretch the musical language of Mozart a bit, perhaps in the direction of Beethoven (or even in one case towards something trans-Danubian like Borodin). In spirit, though, they are consonant with the Mozartian geniality and inventive delight. This listener found them unfailingly engaging.

In the second and third concerto, Il Giardino continues its faithful support of the overwhelmingly beautiful violin. There is subtle schmalz control on the waltzing Adagio of No. 216, with a well-timed cadenza adding some tonic reflections. Cliches abound on the ritornellos of the rondeau of the same piece, but the vigor of the fiddling makes it all bearable.

The second CD offers a bonus Rondo K. 373, which begins as a real piece of fluff, played with earnest affection by Ms. Faust and corps. There is no cadenza, and it is missed. Concertos four and five follow with a lovely Adagio K. 261 squeezed in between.  There is a bit too much preening and posing in the allegro of K. 218, but by now, I am captivated by the idea of these works as realized by this outstanding ensemble and in association with the two interpretive masters. There are moments, too, of such tonal resplendence that one feels it as a powerful reproach of all that is squalid and ungenerous in our world. That I suppose is the magic quality of Mozart at his best.

Surely this recording will reward the fans of Ms. Faust. Mr. Staier’s contributions might win over those who are skeptical of tinkering with scores of the masters. Everything about this recording, concept, soundscape, and packaging, is very well-judged and deserves the highest praise.

TrackList: CD: 1 Concerto for violin and orchestra No. 1 K. 207; Rondo for violin and orchestra K. 269; Concerto for violin and orchestra No. 2 K. 211; Concerto for violin and orchestra No. 3 K. 216;

CD 2: Rondo for violin and orchestra K. 373; Concerto for violin and orchestra No. 4 K. 218; Adagio for violin and orchestra K. 261; Concerto for violin and orchestra No. 5 K219

—Fritz Balwit