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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) arr. Johann Nepomuk HUMMEL (1778-1837)
Concerto No. 10 for two pianos in E-flat, KV 365 (1779/1836?) [26.01]
Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, KV 491 (1786/1836?) [31.14]
Fumiko Shiraga (piano); Henrik Wiese (flute); Peter Clemente (violin); Tibor Bényi (cello)
rec. Bavarian Music Studios, Munich, June 2004. DDD
BIS CD-1237 [58.06]

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Chamber performances of the Mozart concerti are nothing new: the early concerti, in which the winds play strictly a supporting role, can be, and have been, performed with just piano and string quintet. And, as we know, the expressive power of the composer's music remains unchallenged through all sorts of arrangements - by concert bands, guitar ensembles ... probably the Swingle Singers.

But Hummel had to go a step further in these transcriptions - "commissioned by English publishers," as per Rüdiger Herrmann's vague assertion in the booklet - not only by amplifying Mozart's original solo part with embellishments and fillers, but by actively rethinking the pieces. The Classical concerto, which assumes an underlying dramatic opposition between soloist and orchestra, serves rather different aesthetic goals from chamber music, which presumes a parity among its collaborators. Hummel's reworkings thus involve a structural change, especially in the elaborate sonata and rondo forms of the outer movements. The slow movements, simpler and more intrinsically chamber-like, pose no problem. Does the music survive such a basic alteration?

Based on these two of Hummel's seven transcriptions, the answer is a Scottish verdict: "not proven." KV 491 comes off quite nicely, actually, with a little help from the players. The ritornello's opening phrases are really hushed, the better to set off the ensuing "tutti", for which, after all, there aren't any more players to add. The piano, the violin, and (less frequently) the flute variously take the lead, making for invigorating timbral contrasts. Of course, the piano has to fill in the fake tuttis, continuo-style, but it's not unusual for the instrument to dominate in Classical chamber music. The overall effect is quite pleasing, like an original quartet that just happens to stop for piano cadenzas at crucial moments. If you want to nitpick, the violin's scrubbing tremolos sound out of place in a chamber setting.

Unfortunately, KV 365, which appears first on the disc, really doesn't work at all. Perhaps this concerto was a poor choice for transcription: the piano suffers the "double whammy" of having to assume two solo parts, as well as deputizing for the missing orchestra. Thus, after the opening ritornello, the arrival of the original concertante material should somehow sound like a new musical "paragraph"; but here the piano, which has, force majeure, dominated the ritornello, continues immediately, and monotonously. Similarly, after the finale's nifty cadenza, when our ears crave some change of color or texture, the piano, like the Energizer Bunny, keeps going and going. In truth, Hummel might have flexed his imagination a bit harder: the flute part, which could have incorporated some of the thematic writing, comprises mostly sustained supporting tones.

These reservations are no reflection on the fine work of pianist Fumiko Shiraga or her attentive partners. I enjoyed Shiraga's pearly, sparkling articulation of running figures, and the quiet dignity with which she projects the cantabile themes. On the debit side, her tone hardens in the topmost range, and big chords can turn clangorous. Still, I'd like to hear her in full-scale performances of these concerti: I suspect the orchestral context would minimize these flaws while highlighting her strengths. Bis's pellucid recording is top-drawer.

Stephen Francis Vasta

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