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CD: Crotchet

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K453 (1784) [29:17]
Piano Concerto No. 18 in B flat major, K456 (1784) [28:47]
Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne/Christian Zacharias (piano) 
rec. Metropole Lausanne, 28, 30-31 March 2007. DDD
Experience Classicsonline

This is third disc of Mozart concertos from Christian Zacharias and the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra. Zacharias has been artistic director and principal conductor of the orchestra since 2000. His first disc featured Concertos 22 and 27 (MDG 340 1182-2), his second Concertos 9 and 11 (MDG 340 1298-2).

In Piano Concerto 17 the orchestral introduction is sprightly, light and airy too, but capable of opulent tone as well, in particular providing warmth to the second theme (tr. 1 1:12) without any slackening of the overall progress. The chief impressions are of teeming activity and sheer joy. Zacharias’s solo entry increases the sense of merriness. Then, when he introduces the third theme (3:10), he offers the contrast of elegance, as he also does with his later presentation of the second theme. The development finds him in more musing mood accompanied by the deftest of woodwind tracery, piano and orchestra and its constituents seamlessly blending together. In the recapitulation the third theme is displayed more brightly. In the cadenza Zacharias combines fluency and charm with a poise that comes from well judged variation of pace within a generally relaxed manner.
I compared another piano conductor with chamber orchestra account, that by Howard Shelley and the London Mozart Players recorded in 1991 (Chandos CHAN 9068). Here are the comparative timings.


Shelley’s introduction has a grander, even sprightlier manner than Zacharias. His piano solo entry is more urgently projected. He introduces the third theme more lightly and treats the second theme more gently. His development is more alert yet varied in piano shading. Both performances are pleasingly elegant, Shelley more assertive, Zacharias more intimate. What is notable about Zacharias is the greater relaxation in the smoother second theme and the sense throughout of closer interplay between piano and orchestra, most especially in the development, doubtless aided by the pleasing clarity of the surround sound recording with more glowing acoustic and bass offsetting the lighter, smaller body of strings than Shelley’s. Zacharias’ piano is firmly focussed, possibly even a shade too present. His cadenza also has more density.
The orchestral introduction to the slow movement begins tenderly yet the forward progression of this Andante is maintained. There’s a strong sense of unanimity of feeling, the woodwind in accord all contributing to the same song. The tuttis are firm but not massive. Zacharias’ solo at the piano’s first entry, more contemplative, makes for a smooth transition to the new theme it introduces in G minor (tr. 2 2:00) which hovers on the edge of pathos. Later, beginning the interlude in D minor (3:53) Zacharias has a more distant, chilly manner, a sensitive contrast but in keeping with the florid yet heartfelt aria that this movement presents. Zacharias brings a fittingly reflective quality to the cadenza but also a sense of resolution and finally even playfulness, neatly anticipating the finale. Shelley’s orchestral introduction is balmier but more self conscious than Zacharias. Shelley makes the rhetoric of the piano’s cantilena part of the power of the statement whereas with Zacharias the ornamental devices within which the firm statement is encased are clear, which makes its progression more readily appreciable. The outcome is also a more carefree mood, less inward than Shelley’s. Zacharias’ cadenza here has poise and spaciousness though it’s more objective than Shelley’s sensitive, aching interpretation.
Tempo relationships are noticeably well conceived in this recording, so the finale’s Allegretto is nicely paced between the first movement’s Allegro and second’s Andante. This results in a very neat but also smiling and chirpy presentation of the theme at the outset on first violins and flute, yet with the second violins’ counterpoint evenly and pleasingly balanced alongside. Variation 1 (tr. 3 0:48) finds Zacharias at ease luxuriating in the chromatic descents, with occasional help from the strings. He’s equally laid back in decorating the flute lead in Variation 2 (1:36) but the enjoyment of all is evident. He’s more frisky in Variation 3 (2:24) after the blithe interchange of oboe, flute and bassoon, but more respectful in a hushed Variation 4 (3:16) where the sky is clouded in G minor. This is swept away by the vigour of Variation 5 (4:16) but the manner gradually becomes more gracious. The coda, admittedly marked ‘finale’, is separately tracked (tr. 4), which isn’t really necessary but all is conveyed with light verve, an attractive blend of elegance and spirit.
At a faster Allegretto Shelley’s finale is more outwardly bubbling and consciously virtuosic. The flute lead in Variation 2 is livelier, the coda friskier. Zacharias’ steadier presentation, however, has a courtly elegance and inner content. The progression from the opening to the first variation is smoother and the feeling of piano and orchestra complementing each other stronger. Zacharias also finds a wider range of mood with Variation 4 more wistful, dreamy and sensitively shaded before a robust Variation 5.
Piano Concerto 18 is less suave but more bubbly than Concerto 17. Zacharias makes the orchestral introduction to the first movement graceful yet pleasingly sprung and buoyant. Here I compared the account by Richard Goode and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra recorded in 1996 (Nonesuch 7559-79439-2). The comparative timings are:


Goode presents with a straightforward directness and admirable neatness where Zacharias goes for a more rounded quality. Zacharias finds more expectancy and excitement in the transitional theme (tr. 5 0:30) and his sforzandi effects (e.g. 0:45) are more lightly applied, his second theme (1:05) creamier, third theme (1:42) sprightly and dainty where Goode’s is happy just to be brightly distilled. Goode’s account has a more disciplined sense of structure where Zacharias has a more relaxed, softer focus. As pianist he contributes an easygoing, light-hearted ebullience and while his runs introduce an impression of more momentum this is finely balanced with the orchestra in accompaniment often savouring the moment, both together securing a more joyous atmosphere than Goode’s high spirits. Goode’s development is his time for more relaxation where Zacharias (5:20) is fluent and whimsical through its wide ranging modulations. Zacharias reveals the masterly combination in Mozart’s cadenza of florid display, thematic clarity and reflective grace. Goode is more openly virtuosic but Zacharias’ greater internal contrast of pace brings more variety of mood.
Zacharias seems to inhabit the grief of the G minor slow movement from the inside whereas Goode contemplates it from the outside. Zacharias brings a gently plaintive quality to the theme but there’s a gradual revelation of the cumulative weight of sorrow through the first three variations. There’s a poised presentation to Variation 1 (tr. 6 1:36), the piano’s floridity here put to the service of depth of expression. In Variation 2 (3:12) the piano assuages the intensity and slight increase of momentum of the woodwind opening. Variation 3 (4:44) is made an orchestral climax of stark, raw emotion, the piano endorsing and clarifying the feeling. Variation 4 (6:16) brings the sudden, welcome balm of G major which finds Zacharias and his orchestra with an intent gaze, as if half disbelieving. This sense of strangeness continues as they are more comfortable and flowing with the return to G minor in Variation 5 (7:30) in whose coda (8:30), transfixed by the four notes opening the theme, Zacharias slows a little as if freezing time, fascinated by the beauty of this grief. So in this movement Zacharias finds an expressive and colourful romanticism without detriment to classical form and scale. Goode remains more objective. In the climactic Variation 3 the orchestra is more frenzied, the piano more coolly reflective. The relief of Variation 4 is gratefully accepted but the restlessness of the movement opening returns in Variation 5 with a feel of classical probity and decently contemplative coda.
Having been more reserved in the slow movement, Goode is more vivacious in the rondo finale. Zacharias, more eloquent in the slow movement, is here more mellow. He handles the transitional theme which opens the first episode (tr. 7 1:10) in a more reflective manner and the dancing second theme (1:50) isn’t as high kicking as Goode’s. Zacharias’ eingang, the short improvisatory passage at 3:01, less showy than Goode’s, simply echoes the violins and violas in a slightly slower rhythm. Zacharias’ second episode (3:40) is cloudier but not as forcefully sullen as Goode’s. Yet, except for the initial two sforzandi, it isn’t marked louder and Zacharias blends it seamlessly with the return of the transitional theme and his sober take on the dancing theme. He also brings more glow to the stealthy return of the rondo theme on first oboe and second horn beneath the piano decoration. His cadenza glitters yet has slightly more reflection and less froth than Goode’s. In sum, Zacharias’ Mozart is generally quite laid back but he gives well considered performances which repay the repeated listening a disc allows.
  Michael Greenhalgh


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