Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto no. 22 in E flat major, K. 482 (1785) [34:02]
Piano Concerto no. 17 in G major, K. 453 (1785) [31:47]
Vassily Primakov (piano)
Odense Symphony Orchestra/Scott Yoo
rec. October 2010, Carl Nielsen Hall, Odense Koncerthus, Odense, Denmark. DDD
BRIDGE RECORDS 9351 [65:49]
This release is Volume 3 in what looks like a continuing Mozart concerto cycle with the Russian pianist Vassily Primakov and the Odense Symphony Orchestra from Denmark. The young American conductor Scott Yoo directs these forces in two mature concertos of Mozart’s, K. 482 in E flat major (No. 22, not 21, as indicated on the CD cover) and K. 453 in G major. Primakov plays Mozart’s own cadenzas for the latter work, but in the E flat major concerto he plays those by Camille Saint-Saëns.
Vassily Primakov studied at the Moscow Central Special Music School with Vera Gornostaeva and at Juilliard with Jerome Lowenthal. He was a prizewinner at the 1999 Cleveland International Piano Competition and the Gina Bachauer International Artists Piano Competition. Primakov’s 2008 recording of the Chopin concertos was critically acclaimed. He is obviously a considerable artist, but in the Mozart concertos he takes on works that are uniquely demanding. Mozart raised the dialogue between soloist and orchestra to far greater levels of sophistication than one finds in contemporary solo concertos, such as those by Haydn. The pianist also has often to share the limelight with solo wind instruments in the same way as a singer performing an aria with an obbligato instrument. Emotionally too they are full of shadows and hidden depths. As a result the Mozart concertos are probably more difficult to perform than more floridly-written romantic works. The economy and elegance of the writing leaves nowhere to hide.
The disc starts with the E flat major concerto, and my first impression was that it was loud! This is a recording at a high level, and the opening tutti made me jump. A lower volume level was more comfortable. Mozart’s choice of the key of E flat, one that suits brass instruments, suggests that he had a martial effect in mind; he certainly gets proceedings off with a bang. Trumpets and timpani augment the usual classical period orchestra of strings and woodwinds. Although the orchestra plays on modern instruments, the violins do not use much vibrato and the winds are quite forward in the balance, contributing to a “post historically-informed” feeling. The orchestral playing is alert and detailed, without much pulling around of the tempo. Vassily Primakov’s solo entry is quite low-key, something he tends to stick to throughout. He gives the phrases careful dynamic shaping and often plays repeated motifs at a different dynamic the second time around. There is a chamber feeling of collaborating with the orchestra rather than seeking to dominate it, as in a late classical or romantic concerto. The Saint-Saëns cadenza fits better than those more usually employed. The orchestral introduction to the Andante begins with subtly emphasised inner parts; the soloist’s entry maintains the desolate mood. The contrasting major key episodes are sensitively played by the woodwinds. The finale disperses the gloom, opening in sprightly fashion with nicely pointed rhythms. The tempo is not too fast which allows the clarinet arpeggios to be played without hurrying. Primakov’s playing is neat and crisp, almost to a fault; I felt he was being a little too self-effacing at times. His pianism generally has great clarity and poise, but can sound a shade disengaged.
The G major concert K. 453 is more successful. The orchestral writing is less assertive than in the E flat major work - the only one in that key apart from the “Jeunehomme”, K. 271. Combined with Primakov’s slightly reticent style, this rather shades the solo part. The more genial character of K. 453 means it has a more characteristic balance between the soloist and the orchestra, and Primakov uses more tonal variety. The orchestral playing is very spirited and rhythmically alive as before. Scott Yoo nicely brings out the inner parts again in the introduction to the Andante, one of Mozart’s most expressive slow movements. The final Allegro injects an opera bouffe element into the proceedings, with a feeling of barely contained hilarity. Primakov’s playing is a model of neatness and agility as before.
Mitsuko Uchida’s 1980s recordings of these concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra and Jeffrey Tate make an interesting comparison. Uchida has quite a discreet approach to the solo parts, and has no problem in accompanying the wind parts when they have the solo. She is no shrinking violet, however, and to me her solos have a little more personality than Primakov’s. She is capable of some delightful surprises as well, such as the emphasis she gives to the left-hand passage, followed by an extempore run, near the end of the Andante of K. 482.
Initially I was in two minds about this Mozart release from Vassily Primakov. I was critical of Hélène Grimaud’s Mozart release for being rather heavy-handed (review), but I felt that Primakov had gone to the opposite extreme and could have used a little more weight on the keys. I have played this disc several times, however, and found myself liking it more each time. Primakov is a scrupulous pianist who obviously strives to play the notes as accurately as he can. In this he is following those great Mozarteans Dinu Lipatti, Clara Haskil and Ingrid Haebler. The orchestral playing is also of a very high standard, and forms a genuine partnership with the soloist. The recording is at a high volume level and has a realistic balance between the piano and orchestra. This is natural and compelling choice for those who like their Mozart at the delicate and precise end of the spectrum.
There is more to these Mozart recordings than one might at first think.