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IDAGIO meets ... Christoph Koncz

The violinist and conductor on recording Mozart's five violin concertos on the composer's own instrument

Christoph Koncz (© Andreas Hechenberger)

On his new album, violinist and conductor Christoph Koncz performs Mozart's five violin concertos on a very special instrument: the violin Mozart himself played during his Salzburg period when he composed – and likely also performed – the concertos. As well as enjoying a busy career as a soloist, Koncz is a principal violinist of the Vienna Philharmonic and also Principal Guest Conductor of Les Musiciens du Louvre, which he conducts from the violin on the new recording on Sony Classical. 

When did you first discover Mozart's violin?

I've had a close relationship to the Stiftung Mozarteum in Salzburg through several projects, and of course as a member of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra we regularly play in Salzburg during the Mozartwoche. On one of these occasions, I went to a concert where Robert Levin was playing Mozart's fortepiano and where the violin was also presented. I was just so curious about this instrument. I went backstage afterwards and I was invited to come to Mozart's birthplace to play on the violin a few days later. I borrowed a baroque bow from a colleague and went there and just played through all the Mozart concertos for three hours.

So was that when this project was conceived?

Yes, I was inspired and I immediately had the idea to record the concertos on the violin, which I realized hadn't ever been done before. This was 2012, and I started a lot of research, because my idea was to try to be as authentic as possible. We had Mozart's violin, which we know he played on in Salzburg where he composed these concertos. Around this time he was also very active as a violinist, and that's why we assume that he composed these concertos for himself. To have an instrument which the composer himself played and and on which he played these pieces: that's really outstanding!

What's it like playing the violin?

I was really immediately taken by it. It's a baroque violin, and we know for sure that it belonged to Mozart because there are documents from a notary from the 19th century that confirm it. It has always been treated very carefully and it was never modernized in the 19th century, which is very rare for a baroque violin. It was really regarded as a holy relic and it has passed through very few hands since Mozart's death; the Stiftung Mozarteum has owned it since 1956.

And presumably it helps you feel even closer to the concertos themselves…

The first time I played it I was awestruck, and it really does help me make sense of why Mozart composed the concertos the way he did. It sounds very beautiful in the upper register, it has a very silvery tone and a singing quality, and I think it really inspired Mozart to write his concertos in that manner: he uses the upper register a lot, and there's a lot of the character of operatic singing.

How does the instrument compare to, say, a Stradivarius?

Of course as violinists we usually play on very old instruments, and I'm very privileged to play on a Stradivarius instrument from the Austrian National Bank. You could say this is a more "utilitarian" instrument. We assume it was made in Mittenwald [in Southern Bavaria] where there were a lot of Luthiers at the time. The most famous family was the Klotz family, and we assume that it's by one of them. This hasn't been researched for a long time, though, so it would actually be interesting to find out more about this using modern techniques.

It's a beautiful instrument, though, and as with every instrument, you have to get acquainted with it, and see what its strengths are and how can you accommodate them. And by now I feel really at home with it, and I hope you can hear this on the recording.

Mozart's Violin (Photo © Pedro Rodriguez)

And you wrote your own cadenzas, too?

Yes. Mozart didn't write any for the violin concertos, which for me is also an indication that he might have played them himself – we know from his piano concertos that when he wrote down cadenzas it was mostly for other people to play them. Composing my own had been an idea of mine for a long time, already before I got to know the violin. It's important for the cadenzas to remain in the style of the actual concerto, which isn't always the case. Already as a student I studied and analysed all the surviving cadenzas for the piano concertos and tried, through this style, to get inspired about what Mozart might have done with the material of the violin concertos on the violin. It's a very interesting and a very creative process, and it did give me a few sleepless nights, but I really enjoyed it as well!  

And what else did you do to try and find an "authentic" sound?

We wanted a sound which we think Mozart heard in his own ear and so tried to recreate the orchestra in Salzburg from the period, going into the sources to find out how many people played – also during the solo passages, which are always marked in the orchestral score. In solo passages we reduced the forces to three first violins, only one bass, one cello. Otherwise we used six first violins, six second violins, four violas, three cellos and two basses. And also, in my opinion, the bass line should be enforced with bassoon, so I asked the bassoonist to come and play in the parts where oboes and horns are also playing.

Even though the five concertos were written over a very short period – between some of them there's only a few weeks – their characters are so distinct. We also really wanted to try and bring out the differences and their different innovations: the inclusion of popular tunes, folk tunes, and aria-like slow movements and very virtuosic passages, for example, or the very Baroque feeling of the first concerto. And I hope you can hear all this when you listen to it!

Mozart's Violin - The Complete Violin Concertos is out now

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