Arleen Auge'r will sing three of Mozart's great concert arias at the Kennedy Center Feb. 7. This will be slightly late for the composer's 232nd anniversary, which will be observed next Wednesday. But anyone who insists on celebrating the birthday on its exact date can do so with Auge'r's new Mozart recording (CBS MK 42447), which confirms an impression made by her recital here last year: that she may be the finest living stylist of Mozart's vocal music.
The orchestral pieces Auger will sing in Washington (with the Australian Chamber Orchestra) differ from those on this record, which presents sixof Mozart's lieder with piano accompaniment. These songs are often given short shrift by singers and music lovers, but together, Auge'r and pianist Irwin Gage make an eloquent argument for reconsideration. Her voice and her sense of style are as fine as any ever applied to this music, but what truly stands out is the emotional depth she develops. The record is filled out with four songs of Richard Strauss and the four "Mignon" songs of Hugo Wolf, but the Mozart works, in this performance, hold the spotlight against that distinguished competition.
One of Auge'r's peers as a Mozart interpreter, Peter Schreier, is still the tenor of choice for the role of Tamino in "The Magic Flute." How he sang that role in 1970, when his voice was even fresher if not more finely controlled and nuanced than it is today, can be heard in a complete "Magic Flute," digitally remastered and reissued in RCA's new midprice Victor Opera Series (RCA 6511-2-RG, 3 CDs with libretto). Helen Donath is a lovable Pamina and Gunther Leib an appropriately nimble-voiced Papageno, and supporting roles are well cast. But Schreier's presence and Otmar Suitner's fine conducting of the Dresden Staatskapelle and Radio Chorus are the primary attractions of this set.
Another RCA reissue (6778-2-RC) features two of the greatest players of the recent past, violinist Jascha Heifetz and violist William Primrose, combining their talents in a 1956 recording of Mozart's great Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat, K. 364, that is technically gorgeous though stylistically contaminated -- in fact, drenched -- with romanticism. Those who confess to enjoying this record may face loss of their membership in the purists' club, particularly if they also enjoy the Bach Concerto for Two Violins, which Heifetz recorded with Erick Friedman in 1961, on the same disc. Fortunately, the disc also includes the Brahms Concerto for Violin and Cello, Op. 102, with Gregor Piatigorsky as Heifetz's partner in a performance that is not only beautifully played but stylistically right on target.
Those who revel in this disc but want to preserve their credentials as purists would be wise to keep a few recordings of original instruments handy to play for visitors or even for personal enjoyment. I recommend the idiomatic and well-played version of the three Bach Violin Concertos on Erato ECD 75358, with Ton Koopman conducting the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Monica Huggett and Alison Bury as soloists. But the Heifetz-Primrose-Piatigorsky-Friedman disc belongs in the collection of anyone who values string playing at its technical summit.
A recent violin recording that deserves shelf room near Heifetz is CBS MK 42364, which has violinist Cho-Liang Lin playing Mozart's Concertos Nos. 3 and 5, plus the Adagio in E for Violin and Orchestra, K. 261. Raymond Leppard conducts the English Chamber Orchestra in beautifully phrased and textured accompaniments, but the essential attraction is the soloist, who uses a modern instrument but touches the soul of Mozart's music.
Several Mozart recordings on original instruments also deserve special attention. Violinist Sergiu Luca and fortepianist Malcolm Bilson made a sensation and won critical superlatives when they performed the complete Mozart sonatas for violin and piano at the Library of Congress a couple of seasons ago. Luca's old-style violin may not be quite as startling a revelation in the music of Mozart as it is in Bach's unaccompanied sonatas and partitas, but it gives the music a special warmth and grace and an attractive period flavor. Volume 2 of the complete set has now been issued on CD by Nonesuch (9 79155-2, two CDs), and it is constantly beguiling. Mozart wrote one or two violin sonatas with more profundity than this half-dozen, but this music is a delight.
On Hyperion CDA66125, the magnificent Trio in B-flat, K. 502, and the simpler but charming Trio in G, K. 564, are well performed on old instruments or replicas by the London Fortepiano Trio. The fortepiano, a less aggressive ancestor of the modern piano, is the instrument Mozart used; it balances the gentle, gut-stringed violin and cello of the period more easily and naturally than modern instruments. With a solo voice, it reduces the pianist's anxieties about drowning out the singer. In a recording of 17 of his songs with piano, labeled "Volume I" and issued on Arabesque (Z6576), the interpretations are small scaled but well wrought. Soprano Teresa Ringholz must have a virtuoso technique (her roles include Zerbinetta in "Ariadne auf Naxos"), but she scales her voice effectively to the dimensions of a an informal at-home performance. Stylishly accompanied by fortepianist Robert Spillman, she generates less voltage than Auge'r but prettily supplements her work. In striking contrast to the recordings with period instruments and period style, Alicia de Larrocha uses a modern piano and modern technique for the dynamic combination of the Fantasy in C Minor, K. 475, and the Sonata in C Minor, K. 457, on her "Mostly Mozart" disc (London 417 372-2). These pieces not only go well together; they are as modern-sounding as anything Mozart ever composed, and they respond splendidly to this pianist's fiery approach. Larrocha is downright anachronistic in her performance of Handel's Suite No. 5 (the one with the "Harmonious Blacksmith" variations) and downright brilliant in Busoni's great transcription of the Bach Chaconne in D Minor. This disc may not be for purists, but anyone who loves the piano will find it delightful.
Also modern in instrumentation but clearly dedicated to 18th-century style are the Mozart interpretations of pianist Mitsuko Uchida. On Philips 420 185-2, she gives a slightly uneven performance of the Sonata in D, K. 284, (a shade too vigorous in the opening measures) followed by exquisite performances of the Sonata in B-flat, K. 570, and the Rondo in D, K. 485. She is joined by Jeffrey Tate and the English Chamber Orchestra on Philips 420 187-2, which has the 22nd and 23rd Piano Concertos in performances that are totally beguiling.
For those who like their Mozart symphonies on modern instruments, the current international boom in chamber orchestra recordings is producing some outstanding material. Two conductors who are currently going through Mozart's most popular symphonies deserve special attention: James Conlon, who is recording for Erato with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and Sir Charles Mackerras, who is recording for Telarc with the Prague Chamber Orchestra. The two compete directly in recordings of Mozart's superb Symphony No. 40 in G Minor: Telarc CD-80139 vs. Erato ECD 88078.
If I had to choose one over the other, it would be Mackerras in this case. The city of Prague has been specially attuned to Mozart's music since his lifetime; its musicians clearly feel (and quite rightly) that he belongs to them in a special way, and that feeling is reflected in a wonderfully bright and lively performance, which Telarc's artfully used microphones capture in vivid detail. Conlon's is nonetheless an outstanding interpretation, and anyone who wants Mozart's two G minor symphonies together (the other is the very precocious No. 25, K. 183) can acquire this version without hesitation. Mackerras couples No. 40 with No. 41 ("Jupiter"), however, and that combination is hard to beat. Mackerras and the Prague Chamber Orchestra have also recorded Symphony No. 38, which is nicknamed after their home town, together with No. 36 ("Linz") on Telarc CD-80148, a record to be cherished.
Two organizations that stand out in the international glut of chamber orchestras are the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and, in the United States, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, both made up primarily of young musicians and both unusually lithe and well coordinated in their music-making. A good sample of what the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra does (without a conductor) can be heard on Deutsche Grammophon 414669-2, which includes Mozart's "Serenata Notturna" and two Divertimenti, K. 251 and K. 270, all played with a marvelously light touch. Alexander Schneider conducts the Chamber Orchestra of Europe on ASV CD COE 806 in performances of the symphonies No. 38 and 39 that are slightly old-fashioned in style (tinged with romanticism and looking ahead to Beethoven), but solid and beautifully played. On ASV CD COE 808, Paavo Berglund is the conductor and Douglas Boyd the soloist in a performance of Mozart's Oboe Concerto in C that is as fine as any we are ever likely to hear. The Strauss Oboe Concerto in D shares the disc in an equally expert interpretation.
There is no shortage of excellent recordings of Mozart's "Requiem," a composition that was pushed up near the classical Top 40 after its appearance in "Amadeus." A new one to add to the list is the beautifully phrased and balanced performance on Chandos 8574, featuring the English Chamber Orchestra and the Choir of St. John's College, Cambridge, conducted by George Guest.