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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 15 in B flat major, K450 (1784) [24:30]
Piano Concerto No. 26 in D major, K 537, Coronation (1788) [31:31]
Piano Concerto No. 15 in B flat major, K450 (1784): Andante (first version) [5:32]
Robert Levin (fortepiano)
The Academy of Ancient Music/Christopher Hogwood
rec. Grosser Saal, Mozarteum, Salzburg 3Ė5 February 1997. DDD.
LíOISEAU-LYRE 455 814-2 [62:07]

 


Mozartís Piano Concerto No. 15 is like a carnival parade of elegant floats. Thereís a profusion of themes, four distinct ones in the orchestral introduction. Christopher Hogwoodís introduction is light and playful, Robert Levinís fortepiano can be heard providing accompaniment, all in gentle accord. This is not any fortepiano, either. On this CD are the first concerto performances using Mozartís own concert instrument, built by Anton Walter in Vienna around 1780. It has a small, glistening tone, more like a harpsichord than later fortepianos with a more subtle and subdued colouring. This makes it neatly incisive with the orchestra but the important thing is that the orchestral effects are kept in scale with the piano, so the emphasis is on refinement of expression. This in any case matches the character of the work where what is the second main theme (tr. 1 3:25) is proposed by the piano only as a gambit for flights of fancy.

The slow movement is here presented as a warmly sensitive theme, like a song of thanksgiving. It seems complete in itself, presented by strings with a solo piano repeat with delicately added embellishment, and additional touches provided by Levin yet in keeping with the whole. But then a second, more aspiring strain appears with its own tasteful climax and release. A second novelty of this CD, apart from Mozartís fortepiano, is the inclusion on track 7 of the original version of this movement in which the theme is darker in colour, more austere and ruminative, less vocal. Youíll prefer Mozartís revision which is the familiar version (tr. 2) but itís rewarding to be able to realize the improvements he achieved. The structure is unchanged, as is the coda. After the first full presentation of the theme you get a first variation (tr. 2 1:27) which initially has the piano floating arpeggios above the strings. The second variation (2:53) allows the piano still more free rein while the orchestra keeps the theme brightly in focus. Here the revision is a more airy improvement on the fussier original. The coda (4:38) seems to enfold itself in growing intimacy Ė all to magical effect.

For the rondo finale Mozart supplies one of his catchiest tunes giving rise to the raciest elaboration, especially in this performance. Itís felicitously cheerful with the extra fillip of a flute added to the orchestra for the first time in this or any Mozart piano concerto, a wonderful flurry of notes that seems more sheer exuberance than virtuosity, while the second subsidiary theme (tr. 3 1:47) has a sudden wealth of contentment which nevertheless blends with the overall bold sweep. Levin and Hogwood make it all sparkle yet with more than a hint of mischief. Just admire how the oboe copies the pianoís ornamentation from 4:22 which the Barenreiter urtext does not require, then admire further the extra ornamentation of the rondo theme Levin provides from 4:36, again in keeping with the whole mood.

I compared the 1984 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

11:16

5:25  

7:49

24:30

Bilson & Gardiner

10:18 

5:05  

7:50

23:13

Bilsonís fortepiano is a copy by Philip Belt of Mozartís instrument Ė the one that Levin plays. It appears to have a fuller bodied tone, perhaps because the recording of piano and orchestra is closer. I prefer LíOiseau-Lyreís slightly greater distance. Bilson and Gardinerís approach is more measured and courtly, less frolicsome than Levin and Hogwoodís. Bilsonís second main theme is more casually suave. He plays Mozartís cadenza which is a neat reflection of the themes blended with virtuosity. Levin decorates the pause at the end of his first solo substantially (tr. 1 2:11 to 2:27), trying out cheeky variants of the first theme before playing it solo for the first time. His phrasing glides with more individuality and unpredictability than Bilsonís. His second main theme is warmer and more reflective, his development (4:58) more thoughtful and with an insistent momentum about it. Levin plays his own cadenza which offers a boisterous start and notable recall of the introductionís third theme set in a dramatic context. 

Bilson and Gardinerís slow movement is of restrained, classically poised reflection with an abstract quality to the variations. Though slightly slower, Hogwoodís introductions have more warmth and Levinís piano responses more flow. Thereís a more involved continuity about the variations and the coda contrasts more distinctly the pianoís delicacy against the orchestraís crescendos of potential foreboding. In the finale Bilson and Gardiner are bright, blithe and clean-cut yet more polite than the racier, more breezy approach of Levin and Hogwood, with twinkling lighter piano tone. Even though thereís no difference in timing Levin and Hogwood have more swing to the presentation of the rondo theme and zip to the whole. Bilson plays Mozartís decoration at the pause before the rondo themeís return and Mozartís cadenza which concentrates on the rondo theme, especially in the bass. Levinís own decoration combines bravura and poetic reflection while his cadenza meditates warmly on the first subsidiary theme - first heard at tr. 3 0:48 - and toys musingly with the rondo theme before a firework display of pianism. Levinís interpolations suit his performance as convincingly as Mozartís make an impressive part of Bilsonís.

Piano Concerto No. 26 gets its nickname because it was performed just after the coronation of Leopold II. The work was then two years old and it sounds as though woodwind, horns, trumpets and timpani parts were added to a concerto in which the piano only interplays with the strings, at least in the first movement. In the orchestral introduction here thereís a thrill of anticipation and then weighty blasts, especially from the drums. By contrast thereís the protracted graceful lead into the perky second theme (tr. 4 1:05) and playful third one (1:43). Levin presents the piano solo version of the opening theme directly and neatly leading to an easy succession of cascading scales. Suddenly more probing, even troubled, is a piano theme not previously heard (3:42). Levin and Hogwood ride out with bravado a development (6:55) based just on the closing cadence of the exposition. Levinís own cadenza blends well the virtuosic scamper and the contrasts of mood between the orchestraís second theme and pianoís probing one.

Levin and Hogwood get across well the inbuilt repose and contemplation of the slow movement without being too static. Notable is the delicacy Levin applies to the climax of the themeís second section (tr. 5 1:25). Also welcome is his decoration added to the themeís returns, relieving those four crotchets on E with which it opens. In the rondo finale Levin shows delicacy and fluency while Hogwood provides sprightly back-up. The rondo theme is neatly and daintily treated by Levin and Hogwood but the pianoís second theme (tr. 6 1:14) is more strikingly regal and proves the essence of the development as it moves from major to minor (5:25), mirroring the treatment of the second main theme (2:22) introduced in the minor by orchestra but repeated by piano in the major.

I compared the 1986 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

13:47

6:35  

11:09

31:31

Bilson & Gardiner

13:42 

5:46  

10:40

30:08

Bilson and Gardinerís first movement is more stylish and formal, more consciously crafted. Bilsonís emphasis is on mellifluousness so the piano theme (tr. 5 3:42), to which Levin gives more edge, Bilson smoothes over. Levin and Hogwood are more eager with more emphasis on momentum, sunny strings and bright full orchestra passages. Levinís phrasing is more individual than Bilsonís.

Bilson and Gardinerís pacier slow movement makes it more ingenuously contented while thereís more urgency to the central section. Levin and Hogwood have a more reflective quality, more savouring the essence of the contentment, for example giving more allure to the orchestraís chromatic descents (tr. 2 2:05) and more relaxation to the central section. Levinís 30 second linking passage (3:50) is more reflective than Bilsonís 12 second simplicity which, however, works well in its surroundings. Bilson and Gardinerís pacy finale strongly contrasts a slightly toying piano rondo theme and bouncy orchestral repeat. Similarly Bilson points up his major version of the orchestraís second main theme in the minor but the pianoís independent second theme is smoothed over. The more intimate tone of Mozartís own instrument makes more contrast with the orchestra while Hogwoodís accompaniment is bracing and soothing by turns with an ambience thatís more spirited than Gardinerís disciplined authority. Levinís daring linking passages (tr. 6 4:03, 8:36) and greater and varied use of ornamentation at the returns of the rondo theme make these fresher. So the novel use of Mozartís instrument which meant recording in Salzburg is vindicated by the fresh and creative approach to the interpretations. 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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