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Viktoria Mullova – Three Classic Albums
Violin Concertos by Bartók, Brahms, Sibelius, Stravinsky & Tchaikovsky
see end of review for details
Viktoria Mullova (violin)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa (Tchaikovsky; Sibelius); Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Claudio Abbado (Brahms); Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen (Stravinsky; Bartók)
rec. Tchaikovsky, Sibelius: Symphony Hall, Boston, USA, 17-19 October 1995; Brahms: Suntory Hall, Tokyo, Japan, January 1992; Stravinsky: Todd-AO Studios, Hollywood, USA, May 1997; Bartók: Terrace Theater, Long Beach, California, USA, May 1997
DECCA 478 6713 [3 CDs: 66:14 + 39:40 + 56:29]

It came as something of a shock to me to realise that in all of the too-many multiple copies of the core violin repertoire I did not own a single disc by Viktoria Mullova. So in many ways I am the ideal target for Decca/Universal’s bargain repackaging of three of her early recordings as here. The plus side is Mullova’s technical brilliance and the attractive price – currently selling online around the £7-8 mark for the 3 CD set. As ever, individuals will need to decide whether duplication of repertoire and/or exact performances outweigh such a modest outlay. The discs are collected in a cardboard case with the original covers recreated as card gatefolds. A nominal liner is reduced to no more than one rather pointless paragraph for each disc in three languages. As packaging and presentation is minimal to the point of irrelevance the music is the thing.
Taking the disc chronologically; the first is the popular coupling of the Tchaikovsky and Sibelius concertos from 1985 (see earlier review). Pluses are a recording which still sounds very good – no early digital glare here – and I like the natural balance of the orchestra. Yes some inner detail is obscured but I prefer that to the spotlit synthetic balance preferred by some producers. Mullova’s playing is powerfully assured with the cadenzas in both concertos dispatched with imperious technique. The problem as I hear it with both works – but more so in the Tchaikovsky — is the clash of aesthetic between soloist and accompaniment. Mullova seems to be straining at the interpretative leash held back by the very fine and sensitive Boston playing which is ultimately just too urbane and well mannered for these high Romantic works. Ozawa is perfectly attentive but frankly dull. A criticism often levelled at Tchaikovsky is his use of sequentially repeating phrases that move around the orchestra. The conductor needs carefully to grade and shape these little motifs to give the overall music direction and momentum. With Ozawa the criticism seems valid. The central Canzonetta works better after an eighteen minute opening movement which for once really does feel too long for the rest of the concerto with Mullova’s poised but hushed playing quite beautiful.
The Sibelius concerto is much better, although again the accompaniment is not craggy and granite-like in the way that I prefer Sibelius to be. There are no interpretative surprises from soloist or orchestra — tempi sit in the middle of the normal range. Again, Mullova’s remarkably secure technique shines through. In the thirty years since these recordings were made there have been more players as unfazed by the enormous demands of this work but Mullova’s playing stands the test of time. If anything, and this is an observation I would carry forward to the next disc too, there is just a hint of intensity-fatigue-syndrome though. The young Mullova played with a range of expression for sure – as witnessed by the two affecting central movements – but she was less successful at finding the works’ wit or humanity. This is either seriously brilliant or seriously profound playing with little in between. Both concertos are characterised by a direct and unsentimental approach. The greater overall success of the Sibelius stems from the fact that this style chimes more truly to my mind with the essence of the work. An unsentimental Tchaikovsky concerto is a harder concept to ‘sell’. So ultimately a good disc for admirers of violin technique but not one to replace favourite versions.
Much the same can be said of the Brahms concerto. Important to note that this is a live recording – complete with some, not many, audible additions from the Tokyo audience including some audience fidgeting between movements and applause at the end. Again, good engineering from the Philips team and the Berlin Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado produce a beautifully mellow and refined sound. The same creative stress between soloist and accompaniment exists. However, where I wanted to inject some vigour and vim into Ozawa to match Mullova, here I would prefer Mullova to rein back her near aggressive performance style to match the late-Romantic glow created by Abbado. Her opening sky-rocket salvo is mightily impressive but again I found myself waiting for her to relax. This is not simply a question of tempo or attack but an underlying approach which is rarely if ever affectionate. As the movement progresses there is a sense that the benevolence Abbado finds in the score and the beautiful accompaniment provided by the Berliners encourages Mullova to find greater expressive freedom. This is most apparent after another stunning cadenza with a lovely conclusion to the first movement. Likewise, the central Adagio receives a beautifully rapt performance inspired by a richly beautiful oboe solo that Mullova responds to most affectingly. The finale is less successful for me; again rather too brusque. Yes it does require plenty of zigeuner flair but wit and zestful flamboyance too – Mullova is rather too direct and intense for what is one of Brahms’ most good-natured movements. At less than forty minutes for the complete disc this would normally rule itself out of consideration for me, however, given the price point for the complete set it seems less important in context here. So once again, a measured welcome.
The third and final disc dates from 1997 (see earlier review). By some distance this is the finest in this set. This is for the simple reason that the repertoire seems to suit Mullova’s aesthetic the best and the shared vision of soloist and conductor is superb. The coupling of the neo-Classical Stravinsky concerto with Bartók’s great Second Concerto is a good if not overly generous combination. Mullova’s extraordinary precision in her playing suits the cool objectivity of the music. Not for the first time in this set I was interested to turn to a dynamic player of a slightly earlier generation for immediate comparison – Kyung-Wha Chung. I am very fond of Chung’s version of the Stravinsky on Decca with Previn and the LSO (review). That is an analogue recording which might prejudice some collectors but to my ear it sounds very well. Chung and Previn find a Pulcinella-esque twinkle in the outer movements that still eludes Mullova but in this instance with this piece I feel a wholly objective approach is very valid. The Philips recording is significantly closer than on the other two discs but all this does is highlight the clarity and no little virtuosity of the orchestra as well as of the soloist. The third movement - Aria II – receives a beautiful rapt and poised performance and the closing Capriccio is suitable capricious.
The Bartók Second Concerto is a significantly ‘bigger’ work than the Stravinsky. In playing time alone it is not far short of double the length. Although both these concertos were recorded in the same month in 1997, Philips used different venues and Mullova plays with a strikingly different style. I note from her website that she currently plays on two different violins; a Stradivarius and a Guadagnini. I wonder if she had those violins at the time of this recording and/or used different instruments. Certainly she plays with a much fuller vibrato and heavier tone in the Bartók than the Stravinsky – it’s a wholly appropriate and effective choice. Intensity is the word again here – real raw expressionist power that is rather overwhelming. Again, this vision of the work is matched and supported by Salonen and the excellent Los Angeles Philharmonic. Not so long ago I reviewed and greatly enjoyed James Ehnes’ coupling of the Bartók concertos on Chandos (review). It makes for fascinating comparative listening; after the quite gentle bardic thrumming from the orchestra the soloist enters. Mullova is extraordinarily impassioned and vibrant compared to the excellent but less forceful Ehnes. The sense is of Mullova pushing the expressive boundaries of this work to breaking point – it makes for very exciting listening especially when she is matched all the way by an inspired orchestra. The central Andante Tranquillo receives the most poised and tender playing in the set – it is a masterful exercise in precisely graded control. No surprise either that the closing Allegro molto receives a stunningly exciting performance. Ehnes is no shrinking violet at all and indeed he does find a sense of fleeting fantasy that is not Mullova’s strongest suit. Yet for a muscular display allied to an extraordinary technique this is hard to beat. A performance to sit alongside the very finest.
At bargain price this is a tempting set for the third disc alone. Add an interesting Sibelius and never less than good, albeit rather objective Tchaikovsky and Brahms, and this proves to be a valuable introduction to the considerable talent of Viktoria Mullova.
Nick Barnard

Masterwork Index: Brahms ~~ Sibelius ~~ Tchaikovsky violin concertos
Full Contents
CD 1 [66:14]
Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Violin Concerto in D major Op.35 (1878) [33:56]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Violin Concerto in D minor Op.67 (1904) [32:18]

CD 2 [39:40]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D major Op.77 (1878) [39:40]

CD 3 [56:29]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Violin Concerto in D major (1931) [20:37]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Violin Concerto No.2 BB.117 (1937) [35:52]