By Laurence Vittes | From the September-October 2022 issue of Strings magazine
For Italian violinist Francesca Dego, it had been an “unspoken dream” to play Mozart with Sir Roger Norrington ever since they performed the Brahms Concerto in Cologne together in 2017. It was thus a dream come true when the two embarked upon recording the five violin concertos together, with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, for Chandos. The third and fourth concertos were released first, in September 2021, and the remaining three are scheduled for release in September 2022.
There are so many details that jump out in the recordings—the interplay between the first and second violins, the way the forte and piano sections nestle into each other, the way the flutes and horns play with both fun and beauty—that combined with Dego’s fresh, inspired playing and the audiophile-quality recording, it is like listening to three-dimensional Mozart. Stylistically, this body of work is a striking example of the intersection of the old and new traditions, using modern instruments but infused with Norrington’s more than 60 years of research and experience. I Zoomed earlier this year with the two about their collaboration.
For Norrington, who was brought up in the 1940s and ’50s “with all the heavyweight conductors around,” and who saw Furtwängler conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in 1947 and who sang under Klemperer, Boult, and Beecham, having the Mozart as his last recording before retirement “was a great joy.”
“I was used to Beecham’s amazingly slow movements, which I thought were beautiful at the time,” Norrington says, “and I had a lot of work ahead of me to get to what the composer was likely to have wanted. The gradual changes from the time of Mozart and Beethoven had stretched the elastic of credibility until finally, around 1960, it broke the barrier, and we were left with no continuous tradition. We had to go back to what the tradition had been in Mozart’s time—but suddenly it also seemed surprisingly easy because we all rediscovered lots of sources, most importantly Leopold Mozart’s book on the violin, published in 1756, the year Wolfgang was born.”
This recording brings out the best of the Mozart I’ve ever tried to do. It’s up to the minute, evidence-based music making, but it’s also such fun and so fresh and wonderful.
The available resources, with their guidance about approach and tempos, changed Norrington’s viewpoint as he realized that the music “sounded the better and more exciting for it. So I’ve spent 60 years trying to work out how to play Mozart, and this final recording, probably the last record I’ll ever make, sums up a lot of the things I’ve been searching for: phrasing, tempo, gesture, sound—but not today’s continuous vibrato. Leopold Mozart said, if you use vibrato all the time, it sounds as if you’ve got a fever. It’s there to decorate notes. This recording brings out the best of the Mozart I’ve ever tried to do. It’s up to the minute, evidence-based music making, but it’s also such fun and so fresh and wonderful. And a lot of that’s to do with Francesca’s spirit.”
“We spoke about everything, even every ornament,” Dego remembers. “I added quite a few—some Sir Roger didn’t like and he changed or invented new ones on the spot. I listened and tried to absorb. The way he worked with the orchestra made me aware that I could play these extremes of pianos and fortes in the most exciting way. It is so important to know what is happening in the orchestra because that leads the phrasing.”
“There’s not a lot to read about the violin concertos,” Norrington admits, “beyond the fact that they were written by a very young man to play at court in Salzburg to entertain the Archbishop. In this very intimate setting, it must have been immensely exciting. Of course, I’d done a lot of research into Mozart over the years but not specifically about the violin concertos. In fact, I’d never even conducted the first concerto,” he says, adding with a smile, “and I rather liked it.”
For the new project, Norrington researched the instruments that Mozart might have played as the soloist, the instruments the orchestra might have played, the size of the orchestra, how they sat, what speed they played at, and overall what sound they made. He emphasizes that “there are no slow movements in Mozart; they all move along, all andante or adagio, a lazy andante. This is true for the symphonies, the piano concertos, the operas—and the violin concertos. We were also very lucky that the Royal Scottish Orchestra completely grabbed the idea. They astonished us by how good they were because members of very large symphony orchestras aren’t always that sensitive. These people were like the best chamber orchestra in the world. We used the forces Mozart used in Salzburg: six first violins, six seconds, four violas, three cellos, and three double basses. And as you can hear, they’re absolutely marvelous.
“It’s not the only way to do it, of course, there are other ways,” Norrington admits, “but the way we’re doing it today is perfect. It’s absolutely how it goes. I can remember when I was in my twenties, I had no idea how to play Mozart. Now I’m extremely clear. I can take a completely new piece of his that I’ve never seen before and know at once how to do each movement, because the same rules would apply. And when you hear the music played this way, it jumps for joy.”
Although they might have seemed to have been an anachronism in the scholarly context of the new recordings, Dego chose cadenzas by the famed Italian virtuoso Franco Gulli, who taught for many years at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. “They make a lot of sense in terms of length,” she says, “and they’re also all stylistically interesting, although I changed some things in them. The small cadenzas after fermatas, however, are either mine or ours; sometimes Sir Roger changed some things or asked me to change things, also in the ornamentation we came up with. But the Italian school of Mozart, even the historic kind, has a clarity about sound, and its ringing quality and lightness captivates me. It was the kind of approach that Claudio Abbado took in his Mozart recordings with Giuliano Carmignola. So I think we Italians do have a pretty good history in playing Mozart—most of the time.”
Norrington, who has played the Mozart concertos with “quite a number of interesting people,” says that none were “near as interesting” as the young violinist. “Having the time to work on it, combined with the intensity with which Francesca wanted to get it sorted out, was immensely helpful. It was a very special project for me.”
Dego describes how Norrington worked to make sure that the final results had the freshness one expects from live concerts. “Often when you record, you’re so fixated on the technical details and what the microphone is picking up that you lose that special spark. With Sir Roger, it didn’t feel like we were making a recording. He took the time to speak to the orchestra, to change things for an extra take, singing over it or keeping rhythm with his foot—whatever was necessary to keep the musical tension alive during the recording. It was scary at times, because we were afraid we would run out of time. And a couple of times I hyperventilated a little bit about some of the tempi, but in the end, we made it great by trying different things. And when Sir Roger was convinced a tempo was right, he made it convincing, and then it was easy to play.”