A Captivating Rendition of Mozart’s Violin Concertos

Isabelle Faust and Il Giardino Armonico take on the violin concertos that Mozart wrote before he was 19.

Isabelle Faust. Her violin sounds like a solo instrument within the orchestra.
Detlev Schneider

Mozart wrote his first concerto for violin, which is actually his first original concerto, in 1773, when he was 17. The other four were written in 1775; after the age of 19 he no longer wrote concertos for violin. There are a few movements for violin and orchestra, and a wonderful sinfonia concertante for violin, viola and orchestra, written when he was 23, but no violin concertos.

Mozart’s relationship with the violin is interesting. Although he became famous as a piano-playing child prodigy, he was also an excellent violinist, and from the age of 13 he played first violin in the orchestra of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg. The concertos for violin were written for that orchestra, with Mozart as the soloist. Later there are hints of a conflict regarding the violin, as seen in the famous correspondence between Mozart and his father, Leopold.

Leopold, a violinist and important teacher of the violin, didn’t want Wolfgang to neglect his favorite instrument. But his son had his own preferences, and wanted to decide for himself on his order of priorities and on the instruments on which he would focus. As he moved away from his father’s circle of influence, Mozart seems to have moved away from the violin. We are left with five early works, not Mozart’s best, but with an abundance of lovely moments.

The present album includes Mozart’s five violin concertos and another three individual movements for violin and orchestra. The soloist is Isabelle Faust, one of the most exciting contemporary violinists, both as a soloist and as a participant in chamber ensembles. This is her first cooperative effort with the Il Giardino Armonico group, conducted by Giovanni Antonini, which plays period instruments.

New generation

Faust herself belongs to the new generation of violinists who have the flexibility and the ability to alternate between an “ordinary” or “modern” violin and a “period” violin, depending on the work being played by the ensemble in which she is participating. The division into experts who play only period instruments and those who stick to modern instruments has to a great extent been eliminated, and there is a great deal of overlap, mutual influences and cooperation between groups that were formerly rivals.

The album cover. Mozart left the violin early in life.

The most outstanding – and in my opinion, the most impressive – feature of Faust’s playing with Il Giardino Armonico is the violinist’s integration into the ensemble. This isn’t a prominent violinist center stage and an orchestra that complements or accompanies her, or competes with her occasionally. Although these are concertos, her playing has an element of what is found in chamber music. The violin sounds like a solo instrument within the orchestra – both in terms of Faust’s approach to the role, and in terms of her position relative to the orchestra as it sounds in this excellent recording. Compared to other beautiful renditions, like that of Andrew Manze with The English Concert or Thomas Zehetmair with the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century conducted by Frans Bruggen, I preferred Faust, thanks to this unique balance with the orchestra.

Of course that isn’t the only advantage of this performance. It is also outstanding for its smooth flow, elegant punctuation, the delicate sound of the violin, good color and the excellent transparency of Il Giardino Armonico under Antonini’s baton. Each of the individual movements for violin and orchestra is also graced with uniqueness and presence. Along with the frenetic and original 2007 performance by Giuliano Carmignola and the Orchestra Mozart conducted by Claudio Abbado, at the moment this is my favorite recording of the violin concertos.

Mozart: Violin Concertos, K207, 211, 216, 218, 219. Rondo K269, 373. Adagio K261. Isabelle Faust; Il Giardino Armonico, directed by Giovanni Antonini (double album, Harmonia Mundi)