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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K488 (1786) [25:31]
Piano Concerto No. 22 in E flat major, K 482 (1785) [32:42]
Robert Levin (fortepiano)
Academy of Ancient Music/Christopher Hogwood
rec. Walthamstow Town Hall, 21-24 August 1995. DDD
LíOISEAU-LYRE 452 052-2 [58:33]



While I enjoy Mozart piano concertos played on modern instruments I prefer period ones. Yes, the fortepiano is an acquired taste. It never has the power or the sonority of the modern grand, but neither do the orchestral instruments, though they compensate with a more penetrating tone. The gain I feel is in a sense of authentic scale. I understand that on this CD Robert Levin plays a copy by Christopher Clarke of a fortepiano by Anton Walter whose instruments Mozart used.
 
First comes Piano Concerto 23. Christopher Hogwoodís orchestral introduction is sunny and smooth and Levinís fortepiano can be heard in an accompanying role adding sonority and crispness to the texture. The opening piano solo has a blithe, airy, dancing quality. The second theme (tr. 1 3:02) has just a touch more breadth, contemplation and gratitude. The more you hear, the more you appreciate that piano and orchestra are of the same mind. When in the recapitulation Levin returns with the second theme as a solo (7:05), his florid decoration has an engaging spontaneity.
 
Levin and Hogwoodís is a flowing Adagio with all the simplicity and purity of pathos, enhanced by the fragility of the fortepiano tone, leaping quietly, almost furtively, in its opening theme to top D. The second theme (tr. 2 0:46) is creamier because here it is led by the flute doubling the first violins who become achingly apparent at the loud entry (1:02). The pianoís expansive musings are then further convincingly elaborated from 1:23 by Levinís additional ornamentation. But when the opening theme returns at 3:18 the even greater intensity of the ornamentation is perhaps overdone. I like Levinís embellishment of the piano version of the second theme at 4:52 but prefer the poignant bare leaps of the coda from 5:17 to his continuing florid decoration.
 
Levin and Hogwoodís rondo finale is of irrepressible joie de vivre, partly because they play it, as marked, very fast with the orchestra almost falling over itself in response to the pianoís opening solo. Tunes shower forth, because played on a fortepiano, with emphasis on dexterity and lightness. A very catchy piano one (2:33) finds violins and violasí pizzicato backing like light but gleeful handclaps.
 
I compared the 1991 recording by Melvyn Tan and the London Classical Players/Roger Norrington (Virgin 5 62343 2). Here are the comparative timings:
Timings   
I
II
III
Total
Levin & Hogwood
11:20
6:18
7:53
25:31
Tan & Norrington
10:50 
5:28  
8:17
24:35

In the first movement Tan and Norringtonís approach is smoother with the emphasis on melody and euphony. The pianoís second theme is fluent to the point of seeming matter-of-fact. Levinís playing sparkles more. This is partly because his phrasing is more clearly and individually pointed, partly because Levin is recorded with more presence and body, without presenting a false power to the fortepiano. Hogwood brings more freshness and zip to the introduction, more slinky sleekness to the second theme (tr. 1 0:56). Tan demonstrates how neat and varied Mozartís cadenza is. Levinís own cadenza is equally virtuosic but, at a timing of 1:31 allowing himself 24 seconds extra, he makes it seem more ornate and also more personal with tender melodic recall, or rather half recall because variation at the same time.
 
Tanís treatment of the slow movement is more direct but with less nuance than Levin. He achieves an effective contrast at the late return of the opening theme by playing sotto voce, though itís not marked so. Here Levin provides much additional ornamentation, the theme itself almost no more than implied. His approach has a more vocal quality which gives greater breadth and clarity to his phrasing even if by his second solo the decoration has become extravagantly operatic. Tan decorates a little but seems more determined to progress than Levinís savouring of the experience.
 
Tan and Norringtonís finale is well shaped, the piano on a roller coaster, the orchestra spirited, but Levin being a bit faster poses more challenge for Hogwoodís orchestra which is accepted with relish so the movement becomes a game of vivacious, quicksilver darting between piano and orchestra. Again Levinís phrasing has more individuality and variation than Tanís.†
 
Next on this Levin CD comes Piano Concerto 22 where the intimate character of the opening piano solo is clear in stark contrast to the ebullient passages for full orchestra. To give one example, the filigree work in triplets (tr. 4 3:29) is delicate where on a modern piano it tends to be showy. Levin makes the second theme (4:31) gently smiling and increases the floridity of its ornamentation on repetition in a natural and graceful manner. Levinís own cadenza has an elaboration thatís entirely consistent with what has gone before and also remembers the element of filigree delicacy.
 
The slow movement begins with sensitively veiled, muted strings and the fortepiano on the edge of audibility as part of the accompaniment. The piano solo which follows is a lament with the halting nature of the expression caringly apparent. The first orchestral episode is a make believe contrast, the second still more so. In between the pianoís first variation is a richly intricate mining of the depth of the lament. Later the second variation juxtaposes stark orchestra and eloquently tragic piano.
 
In the rondo finale itís a gracious, occasionally glittering, light of foot, contrast that piano makes with the orchestra, jubilant horns in particular. The theme of the central Andantino cantabile section is very smoothly presented by Hogwood, then Levinís repeat (tr. 6 4:55), doubling the first violins with additional ornaments, seems totally in keeping because of the soft focus of the piano and balance between the two lines.
 
I compared the 1987 recording by Malcolm Bilson and The English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner (Archiv 463 111-2). Here are the comparative timings:
Timings   
I
II
III
Total
Levin & Hogwood
12:38
8:08 
11:56
32:42
Bilson & Gardiner
13:10 
8:51  
12:02
34:03

Bilson and Gardinerís first movement is more rhetorical with more emphasis on the progression of the argument. Levin and Hogwood focus more on the melody, with subtler shading on Levinís part. To my ears the brighter edged sound given Levin and Hogwood, albeit in a drier acoustic, is more natural, with piano and orchestra given a little more perspective. But both accounts are rewardingly contrasted. Where Levinís development is clear sighted, Bilsonís is more contemplative. I prefer Levinís own cadenza as its focus is surveying the variety of melodies where Bilsonís own cadenza juxtaposes martial bounce and poetic reflection.
 
Thereís a more studied quality about Bilson and Gardinerís slow movement. The introduction is fully formed in its dolefulness. The piano solo is of exquisitely studied sorrow, the first orchestral episode a tableau of a happier mood. The pianoís first variation is resolute with the bass especially firm against the poignant melody but the second orchestral episode thereby becomes a logically warm outcome. The second variation is a sterner version of the resolute manner but not totally stark and warmth returns as the coda grows more melting. Levin and Hogwoodís presentation of the introduction is simpler, more chaste and apt for the development which the movement provides. The piano solo has a halting, hesitating sensitivity, of which the smaller tone of the more set back recording is an element. In keeping with this the first orchestral episode (tr. 5 2:23) is a gentle, hesitant but growingly confident sunny alternative. The pianoís first variation (3:22) thoughtfully weighs both sad and sunny moods. The second orchestral episode (4:31) is buoyantly sunny. This performance of the second variation (5:20) clearly contains both moods, the piano the more upbeat, the orchestra firmer but not without warmth, allowing a smooth transition to a sunnier coda (6:55).
 
Bilson and Gardiner make the finale a light and jolly, dancing affair with a rather demure, neatly pointed Andantino cantabile in which the Bilsonís ornamentation while doubling the first violins, unlike Levinís, seems rather obtrusive and less deft. Bilsonís own cadenza supplies brilliant flourishes around the rondo theme. Levin and Hogwoodís approach is quieter but still bubbling and luminescent. The second theme (tr. 6 2:27) is presented in simpler, happier fashion than Bilson and Gardinerís warmth. The Andantino cantabile is also more ingenuous and flowing. Levinís own cadenza begins with intriguing variations on the second theme before pyrotechnics.
 
Levin is well known as a master of improvisation. His cadenzas are improvised as is the ornamentation he applies. More importantly, the understanding between him and Hogwood and therefore the orchestra is finely balanced, giving these performances a real sense of spontaneity and partnership. I could quite happily live with them as my only recording of these concertos. The Arkiv CD under review doesnít have booklet notes but I gather all future releases will and existing releases are gradually being upgraded.
 
Michael Greenhalgh
 



 


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