Steven Staryk: A Retrospective: Volume 5. W.A. Mozart: Concerto in G, K. 216; Adagio in E Major, K 261; Quintet in G Minor, K 516; Sinfonia Concertante in E flat, K 364; Steven Staryk, violin; Oskar Shumsky, viola; The Mainly Mozart Orchestra, David Miller, conductor Centaur Records
My review copy of this all-Mozart program, Vol. 5 in the ongoing Steven Staryk Retrospective, came with a diagonal crack across the front of the jewel case. I’d like to think that the fissure resulted from the sheer intensity of the violin playing on the enclosed CD, rather than from the usual hazards of manufacture and shipping. Because, really, this is some of the most vital Mozart you are likely to hear anywhere.
It all begins with Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K216. Curiously, this “performance” by Steven. Staryk is really a pastiche of recordings made on three different occasions. As Mr. Staryk was totally involved with the selection of the 30-CD anthology that constitutes the retrospective, it seems likely the decision was his, presumably in the interest of getting to the heart of this brilliantly virtuosic work, even if it meant combining three movements performed on different occasions, each with a different orchestra and venue. The Allegro was recorded in 1971, with Mario Bernardi conducting the National Arts Centre Orchestra of Ottawa; the Adagio was a live performance in London in 1958 with Sir Thomas Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic; and the Rondo was live in New York in 1980 with Alexander Schneider and the orchestra of the Mainly Mozart Festival. To add to the sonic variety (or disparity?), Mr. Staryk used a different violin on each occasion, a Stradivarius and two del Gesu instruments from his own fabulous collection.
These three movements are all performed by the master violinist, with deep insight, feeling, and a bold, “fat” tone that compels our attention. While there is absolutely no nonsense in his approach to the music on all three occasions, Staryk is not deaf to either the pervasive lyricism or the sly humor in Mozart’s music. The happy, extroverted conversation between soloist and orchestra in the opening movement scarcely prepares us for one of Mozart’s great slow movements. In D major, it modulates into a number of predictable and unexpected keys, with a brief excursion into B minor lending a tragic cast to music that is basically warm, intimate and reflective. In the Rondo finale, the violin plays fast, brilliant passages, a chuckling, attention-arresting theme played in quarter notes only, and a brilliant cadenza. This is followed by a coda, at the end of which the music suddenly “disappears” where we expect to hear a pompous closing – a musical joke that must have dumbfounded Mozart’s early audiences. All of which is accomplished here with brilliance and utmost clarity.
That’s the good part. The bad is that the sonic ambience varies between the three movements to the extent that it would have been impossible to preserve the illusion of a “single” performance, even if such had been desired. Moreover, the Adagio track contains a lot of extraneous noise and “audience participation,” giving the impression that it must have been moving day at Festival Hall, and that an outbreak of flu must have been raging in London. It is a measure of Staryk’s bold, full tone and utter concentration that he rose above all distractions on this occasion.
There follow an Adagio in E, K261 and a Rondo in C, K373, both of which were written as substitute movements for the Italian violinist Antonio Brunetti, who is known to have complained that Mozart’s original Adagio to Concerto No. 3 was “too artificial” (i.e., it had too much creative imagination), an odd claim for a concerto. Staryk plays it in a way that emphasizes its flowing, songlike quality. Resignation and inconsolable sorrow mark the Adagio beginning of the finale of the String Quintet in G minor, K516, in which Staryk is joined by Jaime Weisenblum, 2nd violin; Rivka GolaniErdesz and John Mair, violas; and Peter Schenkman, cello, in moments of exalted music-making. The contrast between the darkness of the cavatina-like slow introduction and the ebullient G major Allegro that follows it is both stunning and perfectly natural sounding in this performance.
The CD concludes with the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola in E-flat major, K364, in which Staryk is joined in the spotlight by his longtime friend and mentor Oskar Shumsky in a 1981 live performance with the Mainly Mozart Orchestra under David Miller. Shumsky, a name that has by now been virtually forgotten by the public, was unique in being equally adept on both violin and viola. Here, he opts for the sharper scordatura tuning that gives his viola greater brilliance and penetrating power in dialogue with the soaring sound of Staryk’s Stradivarius. In a work that is extraordinarily rich sounding and imaginative, even by Mozart’s standard, the results of this collaboration of two great artists is as optimal as we are likely to ever hear it. The Andante, combining profound beauty and immense sadness, reaches depths where beauty is so keenly felt and perfectly expressed that it becomes painful.
Mr. Staryk brought off the concerto [Mozart K216] gorgeously … No violinist makes a purer sound. This was superb aristocratic Mozart.
Chicago Daily News
[Sinfonia Concertante K.364] In a work that is extraordinarily rich even by Mozart’s standard, the results of this collaboration of two great artists (Staryk & Shumsky) is as optimal as we are likely to ever hear it.
Phil’s Classical Reviews
It is difficult to describe the playing without a string of superlatives. The slow movement, complete with cadenza was excruciatingly beautiful.
Staryk might be considered the greatest of the living virtuosi. He is without doubt, one of the half-dozen most gifted.
The New Records (Philadelphia)