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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 - 1791): Keyboard Concertos

[I] "Piano Concertos"
Viviana Sofronitzi, harpsichorda, fortepianob; Linda Nicholsonc, Mario Aschauerd, fortepiano
Musicae Antiquae Collegium Varsoviense
Dir: Tadeusz Karolak

rec: Dec 2004 - March 2006, Warsaw
Pro Musica Camerata - PMC 041-051 (11 CDs) ( 2006) (15.23')

[II] "Concertos for Two and Three Pianos"
Ronald Brautigam, Alexei Lubimov, Manfred Husse, fortepiano
Haydn Sinfonietta Wien
Dir: Manfred Huss

rec: Sept 2006, Straden (A), Florianikirche
BIS - SACD-1618 ( 2006) (69'02")

[I] Concerto in C (KV 246); Concerto in C (KV 415); Concerto in C (KV 467); Concerto in C (KV 503); Concerto in c minor (KV 491); Concerto in D (KV 40)a; Concerto in D (KV 107,1)a; Concerto in D (KV 175); Concerto in D (KV 451); Concerto in D (KV 537); Concerto in d minor (KV 466); Concerto in E flat (KV 107,3)a; Concerto in E flat (KV 271); Concerto in E flat (KV 365)c; Concerto in E flat (KV 449); Concerto in E flat (KV 482); Concerto in F (KV 37)a; Concerto in F (KV 242)cd; Concerto in F (KV 413); Concerto in F (KV 459); Concerto in G (KV 41)a; Concerto in G (KV 107,2)a; Concerto in G (KV 453); Concerto in A (KV 414); Concerto in A (KV 488); Concerto in B flat (KV 39)a; Concerto in B flat (KV 238); Concerto in B flat (KV 450); Concerto in B flat (KV 456); Concerto in B flat (KV 595); Rondo in D (KV 382); Rondo in A (KV 386)
[II] Concerto for 2 keyboards and orchestra in E flat (KV 365; 2 versions); Concerto for 3 keyboards and orchestra in F (KV 242)e

The 11-disc set which has been released by the Polish label Pro Musica Camerata simply says "Piano Concertos", but what we get here are really all concertos for keyboard and orchestra, including the comcertos for two and three keyboards and orchestra and the two rondos. As far as I know this is the first recording of Mozart's works for keyboard and orchestra on period instruments which is really complete. The rival recordings to date are Malcolm Bilson/John Eliot Gardiner and Jos Van Immerseel. In both projects the early concertos, which are arrangements of keyboard sonatas by other composers, have been left out, and Jos Van Immerseel's recording doesn't contain the concertos for two and three keyboards.

I can think of several reasons to leave the concertos KV 37 to 40 and KV 107 out. All of them are arrangements of keyboard sonatas by other composers, and for that reason they are probably not considered real keyboard concertos. In the case of Malcolm Bilson I can imagine him not playing them, because they are clearly intended for the harpsichord, and he is a specialist on the fortepiano, and - as far as I know - doesn't play the harpsichord.

The three concertos KV 107 are a special case. Not only are they arrangements of keyboard sonatas - in this case by Johann Christian Bach -, they are also scored for keyboard with only two violins and bass, and therefore have to be considered chamber music. That is how they are mostly played. Not so here, though: Musicae Antiquae Collegium Varsoviense plays them with eight violins, two cellos and double bass. This isn't chamber music anymore, and the result is pretty disastrous. Although Viviana Sofronitzki is a pianist by profession she plays the harpsichord here, but the balance between the keyboard and the orchestra is highly unsatisfactory. The four concertos KV 37 to 41 are also played on the harpsichord, and here the orchestra has additional wind instruments. But the orchestra is too large, and overpowers the harpsichord.

If one would start by listening to these early concertos there is a good chance they would spoil the listener's appetite. So it is good fortune that they are on the last two discs of this set. But unfortunately starting with the first disc could have the same effect. The first concerto is the Concerto in E flat (KV 271). The andantino is one of the most expressive movements Mozart has ever written. But very little of that is realised. The playing of Viviana Sofronitzki is quite one-dimensional, with little differentiation between the notes and too few dynamic shades. Any use of agogical means to create a captivating and rhetorically convincing musical discourse is virtually absent. What is demonstrated in this first concerto, and in particular the andantino, is indicative of the whole set.

The orchestra strongly contributes to what to a large extent is a failure. The treatment of dynamics is very one-sided as there seems not very much between piano and forte. What is particularly annoying is that the unmistakeable good qualities of the players aren't used to create a colourful and flexible partnership with the soloist. The playing is rhythmically also very rigid and stiff. The Rondo in D (KV 382) is particularly bad: the opening chords are played on full blast and the whole rondo is played as if it is a military march. One wouldn't guess the first episode of this piece is called 'andante grazioso'. Graceful it is most definitely not.

The acoustics also play a role in the downfall of this undertaking. The acoustics are too dry and the recording volume too high. If you purchase this set you are well advised to turn down the volume of your playing equipment.

Apart from all criticisms the worst aspect of this interpretations is the lack of expression. It is not without a reason that Mozart's keyboard concertos are among his most popular works. But the interpreters are just not able to reveal the feelings and thoughts Mozart has laid down in these concertos. To put it bluntly: I found these performances very dull. It is almost inevitable to compare these recordings with those by Malcolm Bilson and Jos Van Immerseel, and the yet incomplete recordings by Robert Levin/Christopher Hogwood. These are in every respect superior to these. I have in particular compared this set with some concertos Levin has recorded, and there is really no competition. The sensitivity and the endless variety in articulation and dynamics goes straight to the heart of Mozart's masterpieces whereas Sofronitzki and Karolak just scratch the surface.

One issue hasn't been talked about: the choice of keyboard. Apart from the first seven concertos Ms Sofronitzki uses a fortepiano which is a replica of a piano by Anton Walter. This is the most obvious choice: Walter pianos are the most often copied and almost everyone uses them in music for fortepiano of the second half of the 18th century. But historically this is very debatable.
It is very likely more than just the first seven concertos which are intended for the harpsichord rather than the fortepiano. And even when the fortepiano is the instrument to use that shouldn't be a Walter. Mozart has used several fortepianos during his life, and most of them are not likely to have sounded like the Anton Walter used here - and almost everywhere else. This is really a flaw in the historical performance practice: many interpreters are too uncritical in the choice of keyboard instruments, especially in regard to fortepianos.

That is not really different in the second release which is reviewed here. Ronald Brautigam and Alexei Lubimov both use Walter replicas, and Manfred Huss uses a copy of a piano by Johann Schanz, which is just as unlikely the kind of instrument Mozart has used as the Walter.

Having said that this disc is a breath of fresh air in comparison to the first recording. The playing of the orchestra is really very different from that of Musicae Antiquae Collegium Varsoviense. The dynamics spectrum is much larger and there is far more differentiation in the way the orchestral score is treated. It suffices to listen to the first minute of the opening movement of the Concerto in F (KV 242) to notice the difference. But although mostly the same kind of pianos are used - Brautigam even uses a copy by the same builder as Sofronitzi (Paul McNulty) - the sound is very different, and that is the result of the playing. The pianists treat the score with much more subtlety and sensitivity and more variety in dynamics, and the result is a most engaging musical discourse which is able to capture the listener's attention for more than an hour.

In addition there is something special about this disc. We get the Concerto in E flat (KV 365) twice. The disc opens with the version we are used to and which is normally played: the orchestra consists of strings, two oboes, two bassoons and 2 horns. But when this concerto, first played in Salzburg in 1779, was to be performed again in Vienna in 1781 and 1782 parts for two clarinets, two trumpets and timpani were added. The authenticity of these additional parts is not established, but Manfred Huss believes they are from the hand of Mozart. Whatever the truth may be, it is very interesting to have them available on disc, in particular as this concerto's character changes quite dramatically because of the extended scoring.

Even if you have these two concertos in your collection in good performances this disc is well worth having, in particular if you are a Mozart aficionado.

Johan van Veen ( 2009)

Relevant links:

Ronald Brautigam
Viviana Sofronitzki
Musicae Antiquae Collegium Varsoviense
Haydn Sinfonietta Wien

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