When he first dared ask the keepers of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s violin if he might be allowed to try it out, Christoph Koncz had no idea where the question would lead.
“Astonishingly they left me alone with it in a room in his birth house and closed the door. I played it non-stop for several hours,” the musician said. “It was blissful, an awakening. I’m pretty convinced no one since Mozart has spent so much time on it.”
Every time he has picked it up since, Koncz said, “I feel like I’m having a conversation with Mozart over a space of over 250 years”.
Eight years since the initial encounter, and after hundreds of hours of practice on the gut-stringed baroque instrument, Koncz has now produced the first ever recording of Mozart’s violin concertos on the very instrument on which the musical wunderkind composed them between 1773 and 1775 and almost certainly performed them.
The 33-year-old Austrian-Hungarian musician, who began playing at the age of four, is also a respected soloist and conductor in his own right, as well as being principal second violinist of the Vienna Philharmonic. He said he was experiencing some of the most intense days of his career. Tonight he is due to perform the concertos on the violin with the French period instrument ensemble Les Musiciens du Louvre, in the large hall of the Mozarteum Foundation in Salzburg, to be repeated later this month, when they will all – including the instrument, under the constant watch of two bodyguards – travel by train to perform at the Cologne Philharmonic.
After months of silence due to the pandemic, Europe’s concert halls are cautiously reopening, albeit to much smaller audiences and under strict hygiene rules. For Koncz and those behind the project it feels like a fitting moment to bring an instrument that has been mainly confined to a glass display case to a wider audience.
“It’s a museum instrument, but we musicians believe an instrument only has one purpose: to be played. I have been allowed to bring it alive again.”
Koncz told how he spent years coaxing it back to life. “As it was very rarely played, at first its wood was stiff and it lacked resonance and its sound had fallen asleep. I played it for hours and days at a time and each time I played it its sound opened up and the wood was in harmony again. The time it took to get it into shape each day became shorter the more often I played it.”
The resulting recordings, he said, were vital for sharing something very close to what Mozart would have heard. “They take this sound, which only a few people would otherwise get to hear, beyond the concert hall. I draw huge inspiration from the fact that the sound I produce on the violin is probably very similar to something that Mozart heard in his own ear. And now we are able to spread that sound around the globe – it is the closest we will ever get to Mozart himself.”
The instrument, likely the first full-sized violin to be owned by Mozart, was probably given to him by his father, Leopold, his sole violin tutor. It was built in the mid 18th century in Mittenwald in Bavaria, a town still famous for its violin making. Mozart would have played on it when he became concert master at the Salzburg Hofkapelle at the age of 13. While on tour in his father’s native Augsburg in 1777, he wrote to him of when he had played his second concerto on the violin, “everyone praised my beautiful, pure tone”. In Munich, later that month, an audience had “stared, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. I played as if I were the greatest fiddler in all Europe.”
Koncz describes the sound as “very beautiful, especially on the higher register with a focused, very silky, silvery tone, with which you can really sing”. He plays it without a shoulder rest – “between the shoulder and the violin there is nothing, which requires a different style of playing. But this makes me closer to how it was played.”
The violin, unlike the one Koncz normally plays, a 1707 Stradivarius, has not been modernised to produce volumes that allow it to be played with bigger orchestras in larger halls.
Koncz said it was astonishing that the main parts of Mozart’s violin were all in their original condition.
“Due to its association with him it was recognised early on how precious this instrument is and nobody dared to actually change it,” said Koncz, who has carried out extensive research into its origins, including its provenance.
The violin passed from Mozart to his sister Nannerl, when he moved to Vienna at the age of 25. After his untimely death aged 35, his sister, a piano teacher, sold it to one of her star pupils, who also died young. Its later owners included a violin teacher and a pharmacist, before it was acquired by the Mozarteum, the leading foundation dedicated to preserving the musician’s legacy, in 1956.
The five concertos, a mainstay of any classical violinist’s repertoire, grow in complexity and sophistication, says Koncz, and are a record of the speed with which Mozart developed as a musician. What he did not leave behind was a score for the cadenzas, the ornamental passages allowing a musician to show off his skills. Mozart likely improvised them – another clue that he played the concertos himself, Koncz said. In one of the most challenging parts of his project, Koncz set about composing his own, trying to remain true to Mozart by studying the surviving cadenzas he had written for his keyboard concertos, composing them for others to play.
“It’s like being in dialogue with him, over the centuries, trying to imagine what he would have done at this point, at the same time as feeling a huge responsibility. It kept me awake at times.”
• This article was amended on 10 October 2020 to correct a principle/principal homophone.