Violinist-Conductor Nikolaj Znaider Channels Opera to Record Mozart’s Complete Violin Concertos

By Cristina Schreil

For Nikolaj Znaider, recording all of Mozart’s violin concertos with the London Symphony Orchestra wasn’t simply a chance to delve deep into the work of his favorite composer. It was also a tribute to a special bond. The project was in many ways born from Znaider’s and the LSO’s close ties with Sir Colin Davis, the conductor who died in 2013 at the age of 85. “He said, ‘We have to record this,’” Znaider recalls Davis saying about the concertos. “We never managed to do it before he passed away.”

As an homage to Davis, Znaider and the LSO did not have another maestro step in. “We wouldn’t replace, him, obviously,” explains the Danish-born virtuoso violinist—who is also a conductor himself. He then assumed the tricky balance between soloist and conductor for the several concert performances of the concertos, all recorded live at the LSO’s home, Barbican Hall. One can imagine the challenges of Znaider’s dual task: To best project outward to the audience, the soloist must have his back turned on most of the orchestra members. Znaider chuckles as he notes such a feat takes plenty of “trust—and luck.” Yet considering his relationship with the LSO spans almost two decades, it seems one wouldn’t find a better circumstance to approach such an undertaking. 

“In some music, we weigh things in tons, and other music in kilos. But in Mozart, it’s weighed in milligrams or nanograms.”

The first of two CDs, presenting Violin Concerto No. 4, K. 218, and Violin Concerto No. 5, K. 219, came out in March on PIAS Recordings. Znaider explains he’s certainly performed all of Mozart’s concertos at various occasions over the last 25 years, but had never tackled them as a main focus for such an extended period. To tunnel to the heart of the works on a deeper level, Znaider framed his exploration through a key medium: opera. “With Mozart, the thing we have to all remember is that he was, above all, an opera composer,” he says, noting how even though Mozart composed these concertos as a teenager, he had already written opera.

He adds that a performance must capture the “element of drama”—in the sense that the audience must grasp how there are many voices at play. “It is the interaction of several different characters and that is one of the insights that one gets only from the world of opera . . . . Unless you find that polyphony, within one line sometimes, the music falls absolutely flat.”

Nikolaj Znaider playing violin in concert
Photo by Cai Leilei/Shanghai Symphony Orchestra

Znaider used this operatic lens as his guiding force throughout the preparation process, which proved particularly enlightening. He began to spot quotations within the concertos that Mozart would later use in Don Giovanni, for instance. One aspect that revealed itself was how Mozart brilliantly negotiated between evoking the public sphere and a more private world. It’s what Znaider describes as “the declamatory and the conversational. It sometimes speaks to the world and sometimes it’s almost an inner dialogue.”


Like many others, Znaider has often commented on Mozart’s awe-inspiring ability to distill vast swaths of human emotion and experience into works that feel astoundingly short, especially compared to the titanic pieces later composed by Bruckner, Wagner, or Mahler. Znaider speaks from Indianapolis, where he’s conducting Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, and Elgar’s Symphony No. 2 in E-flat major, Op. 63, with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. “In some music, we weigh things in tons, and other music in kilos,” he says. “But in Mozart, it’s weighed in milligrams or nanograms.” Znaider paints the works as surprisingly “unforgiving,” requiring a keen eye for details. If the violinist changes the balance or the timing even subtly, it suddenly does not work.

To elucidate what this means for the player, he paraphrases Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel’s description of Mozart’s piano sonatas: that they were too easy for amateurs yet too difficult for professionals. In other words, conveying Mozart’s true depth requires careful musical choices almost on the microscopic level. “The profundity—to get that out, to get to the true meaning of this without disturbing its built-in perfection—is almost an impossible task.”

Znaider lived with the works for several months, concentrating on them in between other projects and performances. This allowed things to evolve and become clearer over time. Expressing the specific Mozartian aesthetic that he’s come to appreciate—informed further by the operatic context—meant getting specific. Some devices, he stresses, are not appropriate for Mozart, such as certain kinds of vibrato and sostenuto. This attention to accuracy pervaded broader performance aspects. An LSO orchestra member suggested that players should stand, which Znaider points out as both more correct for Mozart and a way to “awaken the senses.”

Znaider also did research. However, instead of plunging into books, he turned inward. To dig deeper, Znaider listened to himself—a lot. Thanks to today’s digital world, he was able to pull old recordings of concerts or rehearsals where he performed the concertos. While describing the at-times uncomfortable, cringe-inducing process of listening to and critiquing himself as “biting into a sour apple,” Znaider concedes that self-awareness is invaluable for a musician; it’s a necessary awkwardness to correct and improve his playing.


Listening to himself is a practice he began years ago as a student, upon realizing that the adrenaline-fueled mindset of a performance can muddle one’s perception of how it actually sounded to the audience. “When you start out, the discrepancy between what you think you’re doing and how it actually sounds is quite big,” he says, adding that he especially recommends recording and listening to oneself to students. “One needs to narrow that so one has a realistic idea.” The self-criticism becomes more extreme in the recording process, in which Znaider describes feeling as if he’s been placed under a microscope. It’s an intense yet healthy operation.

Over years of playing, the self-awareness gulf shrinks, he says. Znaider borrows another quote—this time from Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard—to underscore the benefit of self-reflection, no matter how tedious or jarring: “We live life in a forward motion but understand it in retrospect.”

With the recordings complete, one might anticipate a sense of conclusion. After all, a goal Davis long desired is finally achieved. Znaider asserts, however, that the exploration is far from over: “I call it a lifelong dance.” 


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This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Strings magazine.