Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K216 (1775) [22:05]
Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K219 (1775) [27:49]
Sinfonia Concertante K364 (1779) [28:57]
Richard Tognetti (violin soloist and leader)
Christopher Moore (viola, K364)
Australian Chamber Orchestra
rec. February 2009, ACO Studio, Sydney, Australia
BIS-SACD-1754 [79:52]

To my mind, this recording of concertante works by Mozart points the way in which authentic and practical elements in performance practice can be joined pragmatically. It creates a relatively problem-free platform from which to generate realistically enjoyable and musically creative performances of familiar repertoire.

Tognetti’s orchestra plays on modern instruments tuned to A=430 with gut strings. In his own refreshingly honest booklet comments, Tognetti indicates his preference for the intimacy in the sound given by these strings, the effect of which is certainly audible in this recording. While indicating that these elements create a sound Mozart would surely have recognised, Tognetti also admits to our lack of knowledge about so much of what would have constituted a performance in the composer’s time, or even by the composer himself. “Vibrato, legato, rubato … we know what the treatises say, and we know they diverge like different chefs describing the same dish. And we know Mozart was the most strikingly original of musicians, and thus may have done nothing like what the experts’ dissertations directed.” In this way, Tognetti frees himself to be his own man, respecting the creative circumstances Mozart was inhabiting at the time, and therefore seeing the concertos as related to those great operas which were increasingly occupying his attention.

With such oft-performed and oft-recorded works there must be something new to say in any new release, and Richard Tognetti certainly has plenty to say in musical terms. The overall impression left by the recording at first showing is that of clarity and transparency. The wide dynamic range the Australian Chamber Orchestra achieves is impressive, ensuring a lightness of touch which is absolute, even on the few occasions where Mozart stamps his foot. The fun moments, such as that pizzicato passage from about 3:18 onto the last movement of K216 and plenty of other points elsewhere are full of swing and self-confident Mozartean flaunting of technique and inventiveness. Tognetti’s violin is free to dive and soar expressively, to fiddle through those virtuous passages unencumbered by any kind of combative or competitive element in the relationship between soloist and orchestra. The solo part is full of witty little corners through the entire recording, rich with coy little gestures, laughing and sighing like a real opera character. Tognetti’s tone, coming as it does from a superb Guarneri instrument from 1743, is fragrant in its subtlety of colours and vibrancy. Where the density of notes becomes greater Tognetti manages somehow to make the lines feel even lighter, and there is certainly no point at which any of the phrases or tempi come at all close to being bogged down. The cadenzas are also miniature masterpieces in their own right - sparse and understated at times, but with the feeling of high-art statements in miniature, summing up the weight of an entire movement with the expressive voice of the soloist alone.

The crucial most tender of moments, for instance in the beautiful Adagio of the Violin Concerto No.5 are done extremely well, and will bring a tear every time to the eye of those of a sensitive disposition. Tognetti teases a little with the gaps, that after the opening statement of K216 a case in point, but with the final-sounding closing cadences at the end of each rondo section of the last movement of K219 one can imagine audiences being tempted to start with tentative applause before the musicians launch into the next variation. These are stunningly executed by the way, with rugged rustic emphasis of the ‘alla turca’ section, and plenty of inventive touches throughout.

The last Sinfonia Concertante I had for review was that with Rachel Podger and Pavlo Beznosiuk on the Challenge Classics label (see review). I quite enjoyed that one, but this recording from Bis is in another league. The fine playing is apparent from the start, the subtle touches from the horn a delight. The thing which really makes you wake up is the dynamic dip almost to inaudibility at 1:26, allowing the crescendo to build to maximum effect. Christopher Moore’s viola is well matched to Tognetti’s violin, but the instruments are distinct. Mozart indicates a ‘scordatura’ - re-tuning of the strings of the viola to bring it closer to the violin, but in this case, perhaps partly due to the lower general tuning, the characteristic dark tones of the viola are kept, and there is certainly no confusion about who is playing when. I like this contrast, especially with Moore’s capacity to stay easily on terms with Tognetti when it comes to expression and phrasing. There is more of a feel of conversation and connection in this pair’s playing, a sense of response and spontaneity, and the cadenza moments are a real treat. The beautiful Andante is as much a pleasure from the orchestra as from the soloists, with every accent and detail observed with precision and delicacy. The same goes for the final Presto, which is taken at a swift but always well controlled pace, maintaining that detail and transparent lightness which is a feature of the entire programme.

Bis’s presentation is up to its usual very high standard, and it’s nice to see the old fish-eye lens being dusted off for the cover photo. The recording production of this release is also first class, though I suspect I might have found an editing faux-pas which leaves a hilarious if beautifully executed repeated dissonance from the soloist 3:22 into first movement of the Concerto in A major. Tognetti moves from his spot at an edit near the end of the same movement at 9:32, but these are all remarkably minor quibbles*: this is a recording whose performances are highly enjoyable and technically beyond reproach. The SACD sound is full and detailed and it needs to be, with everything going on not only equal to close scrutiny, but actually demanding it. I’ve mentioned it before, but it can stand repeating: this is a recording which communicates. There are plenty of recordings out there which play very nice Mozart, but there aren’t so very many which you can hear with a feeling you are developing in your mind’s eye the very characters the composer may have had in his mind when writing his melodies, with all their little ways and foibles. Tognetti and his fellow musicians bring this music to life in ways I hadn’t previously imagined, and as a result win through on a hard-fought shelf-full of alternatives.

Dominy Clements

*Recording Engineer, Jens Braun, says that there are no edits at either 3:22 or 9:32 in the first movement of Concerto No. 5 in A major and he has asked me to pass that information on to you.