The Strad Issue: January 2009
Musicians: Thomas Zehetmair (violin/director) Ruth Killius (viola) Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, Franz Brüggen (conductor)
Composer: Mozart

These discs contain crisp performances delivered on period instruments, with the orchestra especially playing with commendable fastidiousness. Intonation is exemplary and the recording well-balanced (if a little too reverberant).

In many ways, this set is typical of current ‘commercial’ approaches by period-instrument groups – the sparer sonorities reveal these works clearly, the neat phrasing is testimony to a mature historically informed aesthetic, but the extent to which this bears any relation to 18th-century practice is debatable. There is very little tempo flexibility here, save for the modern penchant for slowing down for ‘expressive’ passages, and, in the first movement of Concerto no.5, the inequality that Marie Soldat-Roeger employs in the semiquavers in the first movement in her 1926 recording is conspicuously absent in Thomas Zehetmair’s case, even though there is much evidence to suggest that this was an 18th-century trait.

Likewise, portamentos are avoided, even though it is well known that they were employed by the 1780s. More disturbing is that where vibrato is allowed (as in the slow movement of the G major Concerto) it appears to be of a purely modern variety. The effect is as much one of modern playing with its ‘excesses’ removed as it is a thorough-going period performance. Sometimes the result is rather wan and lacking in fire – modern playing carefully reined in – at other points it can result in shapeless stridency, as in some of Ruth Killius’s otherwise pleasing viola playing. For all these stylistic caveats, this is an impressive release by well-known and well-respected practitioners of ‘classical’ period performance.    

David Milsom