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Renewal and stagnation


Two years ago, I reviewed new recordings by Viktoria Mullova and Maksim Vengerov in this column. Then Mullova's Beethoven recording disappointed, while Vengerov's Britten received rave reviews. Now it's the other way around – and ironically, this time too, Beethoven's concert is the disappointment. Is it that hard to do well?

Renewed career

A passion for early music has prompted renowned violinist Viktoria Mullova, who is primarily known for her performances of the standard repertoire, to embrace historically informed performance practice. Since 2000 she has toured with early music ensembles Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Il Giardino Armonico. This has renewed her career.

Now the Russian in exile Mullova has taken his collaboration with the Italian ensemble Il Giardino Armonico to the record studio. Together they have performed five of Antonio Vivaldi's best violin concertos: RV 280 ("Grosso Mogul"), RV 580, RV 187, RV 234 ("L'Inquietudine") and RV 277 ("Il Favorito"). Mullova plays a violin from 1723 with intestinal strings and a baroque bow.

Vivaldi was a productive man. After the last count, there are now up to 253 concerts for violin and orchestra. He has been of great importance for the development of the violin concerto as a genre; among those who were greatly influenced by him was JS Bach – he transcribed, among other things, "Grosso Mogul" in a modified form for the organ concerto in C major, and the concerto in B minor, RV580, became Bach's concerto for four harpsichords.

Mullova's playing is not behind anything provided by more specialized "early musicians". It is at the same time passionate and cool, crystal clear and perfectly intonated with a technical ease many may envy her. If one were to make a critical remark, it must be that she is not always "baroque" enough – baroque then understood as extract in a dynamic and tempo-wise sense. But it would almost be perverse to call it a deficiency. Also, the contrasts are well taken care of by the always-splashing orchestra under its leader Giovanni Antonini.

The record has come out on the newly started record label Onyx, which is worth watching as they have already joined some of the classical music elite. This is one of this year's gems.

Without progress

Like Mullova, her compatriot Maksim Vengerov has also performed early music with a historically authentic approach; on his release with sonata by Eugène Ysaÿe, he included a performance by Bach's Toccata and Fuge in d minor, BWV 565, though with a not as convincing result. He is now out with a new CD on EMI with Beethoven's violin concerto and two novels for violin and orchestra.

There are probably more recordings of this concert than of any other violin concertos, and many good ones. Maybe you should therefore have something new to convey in this concert if you are going to record it – or play it very well. Neither of these two elements can be said to characterize Vengerov's performance.

The first movement is performed slower than I have ever heard. He spends six to seven minutes more than usual in this movement, and when the movement is 20 minutes, it is quite a lot. This leads to the progress being lost, which is a big disadvantage in Beethoven's music, where so much is about progress and movement. What remains is a sentimental dwelling on individual passengers. This is also reflected in Vengerov's playing, which lacks a feeling for the dramatic structure of the music – it's just as if it's about cooling off with as much sweet melody as possible. And if there is anything Beethoven's music just for is about, that's it.

The orchestra also walks away in a rather ungraceful way, so that one hardly notices that it is an orchestra of top quality that plays. The London Symphony Orchestra can do so much better – if only they had a conductor with a greater sense of the dramatic potential of music. Mstislav Rostropovich is a great cellist and has proven to be a skilled conductor on other releases, but here he falls short. It's disappointing, especially since these otherwise excellent musicians have had successful collaborations in the past. If you're going to have Beethoven's Violin Concerto, opt for Jascha Heifetz's incomparable performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Charles Munch at RCA.

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