With the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birthday in 2006, a new crop of Mozart recordings have been released, including many of his sonatas for violin and pianoforte. Among these are fresh recordings from Mark Steinberg/Mitsuko Uchida, Hilary Hahn/Natalie Zhu, Anne-Sofie Mutter/Lambert Orkis(Aug.'06), Andrew Manze/Richard Elgar and Rachel Podger/Gary Cooper - the latter two on period violin and period fortepiano. Depending on how one feels this music should be played will determine what most appeals to you. All of these new additions seemed to get mixed reviews from the music press. Often in these reviews, mention is made of the historic "Reference Recordings" - those superlative readings that set the standard. And in the case of Mozart's violin sonatas, we have the legendary works of Arther Grumiaux/Haskill and Szeryng/Haebler - both recorded in the 1970's - as well as Perlman/Ashkenazy. Grumiaux in particular of often cited as the standard for Mozart (for most critics) with his ever-smooth, elegant, galante manner and beautiful tonal coloration and equisite vibrato. Like the lead reviewer properly stated in the review on Rachel Podger's release, any artist undertaking such works as these best study the greats that have gone before them.
Out of these newer releases mentioned, the performance that seems to have heeded such advice is that of Hilary Hahn and Natalie Zu - whose readings exude "Mozart" the most clearly and approach the elegance and grace of the past legends. As much as I greatly admire Podger and Manze in the Baroque repertoire, I have to say their take on Mozart did not captivate me. However fans of theirs will likely find much to celebrate - and the fortepiano in those recordings certainly evokes the era of Amadeus.
While the lead reviewer can point out a few weaknesses that mainly professionals will mostly care about, the average listener will probably be thoroughly delighted in the sprightly interaction and appealing performances of this duo. Hahn is one of those performers who playing seems to eminate from her persona - that of a perfected, pure and angelic tone and line. Her violin sounds quite delectable as does the overall sound. Miss Hahn is always a treat to hear and her fans should adore these readings. Overall, I think she finds the right approach here and gives a winning perfomance. Mozart's music was a lot about perfection and poise (ie: classicism) and less about rubato and exentuation, and Hahn plays to that standard. Perhaps she could "loosen the reigns" somewhat at times and alter her shaping of the music, but with such gorgeous playing as hers, such criticism can quickly become irrelevant.
As Mozart often viewed these works more as "piano sonatas with violin accompanyment," it really should be the pianist more fronted in the billing. Equally a star in this CD is Natalie Zhu who brings great dexterity and a perky legato to the music and should be more noted. While I like the sound of the fortepiano can invoke images of Mozart himself, I have to admit I much prefer the modern grand Zhu plays here for its greater depth, richer timbre and wider range of expression. And there is a effortless, seamless partnership between these two musician-friends that is marvelous. So, altogether, this CD is a fine, fresh sampling of Mozart's many violin sonatas and worthy of addition to even a large Mozart collection. I never get tired of these pieces or performance. Uchida's CD is also gorgeous with slightly slower tempos and a very different, more "romantic" violin expression from Mark Steinberg with beautiful sound quality. Get both if you can. Compositions - 5 stars; Performance 5 stars; Sound quality - 5 stars.