RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concertos - Volume 1
Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor, K.491 (1786) [31:45]
Piano Concerto No.25 in C major, K.503 (1786) [31:56]
Piano Concerto No.26 in D major, K.537 “Coronation” (1787-88) [30:17]
Piano Concerto No.27 in B flat major, K.595 (1788-91) [32:14]
Vassily Primakov (piano)
Odense Symphony Orchestra/Scott Yoo
rec. November 2008 (K.491, K.595), October 2009 (K.503, K.537), Odense Konserthus, Odense Denmark. DDD
BRIDGE 9328A/B [63:54 + 62:46]
This is a wonderful reading of Mozart’s last four piano concertos. It is simple and very lyrical. Primakov had already shown himself to be a master of piano touch: here is further proof of his mastery. There is also the feeling of thought behind the interpretation. It does not make the music dry and intellectual, but it is purposeful. Even the great pianists played some passages in Mozart’s concertos because … well, just because they are written there. In Primakov’s recording, each moment is necessary, like precise words in a good poem. His sound is beautiful, and he manages an almost impossible task: he plays the three last major-key concertos so that they can be listened to in a row, in one breath - again, and again, and again - with great pleasure.
This is not only to the pianist’s credit. The Odense Symphony, led by Scott Yoo, is an equal partner. The conducting is light and flexible with attention to detail. The strings express the slightest nuance and gradation of mood. I would particularly praise the woodwinds. Their role (especially in No.24) is very important, and they do not allow a single weak phrase. Their friendly commentary lights up the music. What is significant, the pianist lets them shine - he is never jealous of them stealing the limelight for a while. And so we hear the music, and not just piano flourishes with orchestral background.
In the first movement of No.24, Primakov and Yoo sharpen the difference between the angular, angry first theme and the soft, poetic second subject. This brings to mind the First concerto of Brahms: is this where it grew from? This said, the performers remember that this is Mozart, not Beethoven. They do not cross the line between the dramatic and the tragic. Dark clouds fill the sky but there is no thunderstorm. Primakov chooses interesting non-standard cadenzas: here it is by Fauré, and very Romantic. The slow movement is marked by a perfect woodwind ensemble. The finale is not too fast, which is to the good. The music is sung to us, instead of the usual way when it rushes past like an express. Primakov’s playing is so lyrical, and the orchestral support is so sympathetic, that I’d bet this is henceforth the version of K.491 that I’ll return to the most often.
No.25, the “Jupiter” of the piano concertos, has a lot of bright C-major light. But this is not a brazen sun shining on golden helmets. This is the light on sunlit trees, on running water; this is the brightness of meadow flowers. The joy is very Mozartean, with the spirit of The Magic Flute in the air. There is much repetition going on, but in the hands of Primakov and Yoo it does not seem plainly repetitive, as they always underline the musical progression. The cadenza is simple and fits in very naturally. Primakov savors the tranquil slow movement. Even the bravura of the finale is not mechanical.
No.26 in Primakov’s reading is elegant and graceful. The accent is moved to the piano part, more brilliant here than in other three concertos; the orchestra draws back a step. And the pianist well deserves this attention, by his careful handling of each note. He makes the music breathe - and you may notice that you synchronize your breath with the music. The cadenza by Wanda Landowska is elegant and well crafted. In the pastoral slow movement, Primakov employs his magic touch. Here the writing is sparse, and every note is on display. He brings expression to each little phrase, but without visible means, without cheap external pressure: oohs and aahs. The seemingly simple musical material kindles breath-arresting attention and anxiety. The Danish strings provide a very well measured background. In the finale, the pianist chooses not to “raise his voice”, giving us a subtle Haydnesque play of light and shade.
In No.27 Primakov emphasizes the work’s wistful, elegiac traits. He does not turn Mozart’s last piano concerto into His Last Piano Concerto, as some performers do when solemn weight goes into overload. The music is touchingly intimate, personal and balmy. Primakov does not hurry forward in the slow movement, making it a long, static pleasure, as if submerged in a warm aromatic bath. The finale is lively, and has a mischievous smile. There is no abandon here: this is the joy of a grown-up looking at children, not that of the children themselves. We may be used to more buoyant versions, but this one has a very organic fit.
I can’t imagine someone being disappointed by this set. Even if you have other versions of these masterpieces, Primakov’s lyrical approach is brilliant yet emotional, light yet soul-profound. Moreover, he is consistent throughout, making this a real set, not just a compilation of four recorded concertos. Scott Yoo and the Odensians are excellent partners, sharing the lightness of touch and the lucidity of emotion.
The extensive and very informative notes by Malcolm MacDonald deserve to be a chapter in a book. They provide a good overview of the history of creation of the works, together with a deep musical analysis. I noticed a couple of strange things - like talking about “Mozart’s widow Constanze” in 1789: hey, the guy was still alive! But overall this is very good read. The recording is crystal clear and transparent. This is without doubt my Recording of the Month. Mozart’s final piano concertos are so familiar - we think we know them like the back of our hand. What a pleasant surprise that new things can still be discovered there. But such discoveries - or discoverers - do not come too often. I can’t wait to hear Volume 2!
Primakov’s uniquely lyrical approach - brilliant yet emotional, light yet profound.