Unlike his operas, symphonies and piano concertos, which span entire his creative life, Mozart’s five violin concertos were written over a mere two years – the three which appear here were all written in Salzburg in1775. This is strange. Mozart’s father Leopold was an excellent violinist who held a high position as director of the court and cathedral orchestra of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg. Leopold was also the author of a widely-sold and influential book setting out a violin method – indeed it is still referred to today by players studying late 18th-century violin technique. His son was more than capable of playing his own violin concertos.
It was however as a child prodigy composer and keyboard player that Mozart, with his talented keyboard-playing sister, was trawled around Europe by their ambitious father. It was therefore natural that Mozart should go on to compose piano concertos for his own use: he wrote twenty-seven of them, the last in the year of his death. The keyboard, after all, offered him far wider possibilities of invention and expression, and opportunities to demonstrate the qualities which had won him his reputation as the greatest keyboard player of the age.
If we look at the music he was writing in Salzburg around 1775, we find a quantity of serenades and divertimenti. These extended works, comprising several movements, were ‘light’ music, often for outdoor entertainment, for weddings, private parties or to celebrate events such as the raising of a member of the Haffner family to the Austrian nobility. Four of these serenades include within them ‘mini’ violin concertos, and there are prominent violin solos within some of the divertimenti. The five violin concertos, especially the first two (not represented here) have something of the same quality of these ‘light’ works. We must beware of the term, however, for no matter how ‘light’ they are, Mozart’s music is rarely ‘slight’, and they are replete with his genius. Mozart could not do otherwise; indeed, the last three of the five represent such an advance over the first two that the whole set are a concentrated example of Mozart’s ever-increasing mastery of his art.
The opening of the Violin Concerto No.3 is a ritornello which Mozart “borrowed” from his pastoral opera-serenata Il Rè Pastore written in the same year. In the opera, Mozart makes extensive use of the orchestra to underline or comment on the feelings of the characters; in this movement we hear examples of the same kind of thing, as if the solo violin and the orchestra are characters in an opera.
As Mozart scholar Neal Zaslaw has pointed out, the first obviously striking element of the slow movement is the orchestral timbre, with two flutes, low horns, muted strings and pizzicato cellos and double basses. At times the solo violin seems to go its own way in a movement of effortless beauty.
Not long after the first performance of the work in Salzburg (probably with Mozart as soloist but we cannot be sure), Mozart performed it in his father’s native city of Augsburg. He wrote home to Leopold that the last movement “went like oil. Everyone praised my beautiful tone”. The eminent musicologist, the late H.C.Robbins Landon, wrote of Mozart’s violin concertos having “an embarrass de richesse,” where “melody is piled on melody, and new ideas succeed each other in blissful insouciance of each other and of any strict formal pattern.” This is unquestionably true of the third movement. Basically a Rondo, it is full of surprises, abruptly breaking off completely at certain points to take off in a different direction, on one occasion to re-start as a gavotte. As such, it owes more to the serenade or divertimento than to the formal concerto.
You might have thought that, having broken the mould with his third violin concerto, Mozart would have stuck to something of the same formula when, shortly afterwards, he sat down to compose his Violin Concerto No.4 . No such thing. The vigorous opening soon moves into a contrasting mood but there is a brief return to the opening material before we hear the soloist, soaring above the orchestra. If, as is likely, Mozart performed the concerto himself, we get a hint of what a fine player he must have been in terms of both expressivity and virtuosity.
The key to the slow movement is in the title, Allegro cantabile. This is the music of a man who had an unequalled understanding of the singing voice. It would be impertinent to attempt to describe this music, for such melodic beauty is beyond words. The finale is incredibly rich in the cast of characters generated by the opening Andante grazioso and the contrasted Allegro material and even includes an affectionate nod to a country dance.
Good humour pervades the Violin Concerto No.5. After the vigorous opening the soloist enters with completely new material, a departure from conventional form. In the slow movement, Mozart goes beyond even what he achieved in the two previous concertos, both in its scale and its expressive depth. Again, it is difficult to avoid thinking of it as an opera aria for violin and orchestra.
The third movement is one of Mozart’s 'Turkish’ pieces, reflecting the current Austrian fashion for what were regarded as the exotic delights of the East. He had already given his opera Zaïde a Moorish setting . This turned out to be the precursor of a later masterpiece “The Abduction from the Seraglio”, set in a harem. In 1683, a turning-point in European history, the armies of the Ottoman Empire had ravaged their way across Europe as far as the gates of Vienna, where they were turned back. A century later, memories of war had faded and for the Austrians, things Moorish meant coffee, cakes (you can still find crescent-shaped Nuβkipferl and Moor im Hemd in Viennese coffee-houses) and exotic entertainments featuring lots of noisy percussion. Mozart delighted in making his contribution to the amusements in the finale of his last violin concerto.
Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) was born in New York to immigrant parents from Belarus and grew up in a family steeped in the rabbinical tradition. He began violin lessons at four and at seven appeared with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. He studied very briefly with Ysaÿe in Paris before becoming a pupil of the great Romanian composer-violinist Enescu in Paris and Adolph Busch in Berlin, where he played concertos by Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. In 1932 the teenager was chosen by Sir Edward Elgar to record his Violin Concerto under the composer’s baton at the Abbey Road Studios, now a legendary recording.
After war’s end, Menuhin and Benjamin Britten played for the survivors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and, as an act of reconciliation, Menuhin performed in Berlin with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Wilhelm Furtwängler. Throughout his life, Menuhin campaigned for humanitarian causes. He embraced other musical traditions, too, performing and recording with jazz violinist Stéphane Grapelli and sitar master Ravi Shankar. Menuhin was devoted to music education, founding music schools in England, Gstaad and California.
From 1959-1968 Menuhin was Director of the Bath Festival, founding an orchestra for the festival drawing upon many of the finest orchestral players in the country. He became a British citizen, was knighted and later raised to the peerage as Baron Menuhin. He recorded for EMI for seventy years.
Among Mozart’s wide circle of friends in Salzburg was the horn player Ignaz Leutgeb. As with many of his closest friends, Mozart teased him mercilessly and made him the butt of his practical jokes. Eventually, Leutgeb inherited a cheese-shop in Vienna and set up as a cheese-monger. At the same time he was by far the finest horn-player in Vienna, and he was always Mozart’s first choice. It was for Leutgeb that Mozart wrote his Four Horn Concertos. In the autograph score of the second Concerto Mozart inscribed: “Wolfgang Amadé Mozart takes pity on Leutgeb, ass, ox and simpleton, at Vienna, 27th March 1783.” A typical Mozart joke, for these concertos stretch the capacity of the late 18th-century horn almost beyond its limits. The instrument of the day was not so far removed from the hunting-horn, with no valves and depending on the player’s lip to form the notes. The player could change key by inserting crooks of different lengths, but the chromatic scale was way beyond the instrument’s capacity. Leutgeb had developed the ability to play additional notes by inserting his hand in the bell of the instrument, so-called ‘stopped’ notes, and Mozart exploited this to the full in the solo parts of these concertos. He could not have paid his friend a greater compliment.
This recording by Dennis Brain (1921-1957) catapulted into stardom a player already recognized by the cognoscenti as the outstanding horn player of his day. His qualities went far beyond a total mastery of this notoriously difficult instrument. He produced a wonderful sound, ranging from the most powerful to the most gentle, and had the sensitivity of a great singer to phrasing and every shade of expression. His response to Mozart reveals what a very great artist he was.
Brain came from a family of horn players, but did not take up the instrument seriously until he was fifteen. The same year, he entered the Royal Academy of Music and just two years later sat beside his father with the Busch Chamber Players in a performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.1 at the Queen’s Hall.
Brain was quickly in demand as soloist and orchestral principal horn and in the recording studio, even when he was in the R.A.F. during World War II. He joined Beecham’s new Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and then went on to become principal horn in the Philharmonia Orchestra, newly-founded by impresario and record producer Walter Legge, who also brought Herbert von Karajan to London. Brain’s solo career took him around the world. Many composers wrote works for him, including major masterpieces by Benjamin Britten. His death in a car crash on his way back to London from the Edinburgh Festival shocked the musical world.