Mozart In-betweenMasterwork Index: Mozart Symphony 23 ~~ Piano concerto 9
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No. 23 in D, K181 (1773) [8:29]
Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat, K271 Jeunehomme (1777)* [31:16]
Thamos, König in Ägypten, KV 345: No. 2: Maestoso - Allegro [6:00]
Denis SCHULER (b.1970)
In-between for string quartet and orchestra (2010) [10:34]
(World premiere recording)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART
Thamos, König in Ägypten No. 2: Maestoso - Allegro [3:20]
Mitridate, rè di Ponto, K87: Venga pur, minacci e frema** [6:58]
Lawrence Zazzo (counter-tenor)**
L‘Orchestre de Chambre de Genève/David Greilsammer (piano*)
rec. La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, 14-17 November 2011. DDD
SONY CLASSICAL 88725430252 [66:44]
Some time ago I wrote a review of a Naïve CD entitled fantaisie - fantasme, featuring David Greilsammer in a very mixed recital with Mozart’s c minor Fantasy, K475, at its centre (V5081 - review). I concluded with the words: I wouldn’t advise rushing out to buy this CD but I would advise you to watch out for CDs with more unified programmes from David Greilsammer, especially if they include Mozart.
That recommendation to watch out for an all-Mozart programme was also based not only on the CD in question, but also on reviews that I’d seen of his earlier Vanguard ATMA recording of three early piano concertos, Nos. 5, 6 and 8, K175, 238 and 246. Attempts to obtain that Vanguard recording for review proved futile; I didn’t realise that it was right under my nose in the Naxos Music Library and as a download from classicsonline.com, both in its original guise and on Naïve, to whom the recording has apparently been reassigned (V5149). Having listened to it, I can happily endorse those recommendations for these stylish performances, on which Greilsammer is accompanied by his own small-scale Suedema Ensemble. Only the rather weird cover which Naïve have chosen, a photograph of a caparisoned toy horse lying in the dirt minus its chivalric rider, seems odd.
In the meantime, however, Greilsammer has seemed less promising; he produced a CD of two Mozart piano concertos which Bob Briggs found disappointingly misjudged (Nos. 22 and 24, Naïve V5184 - review) and Mark Berry thought his performance of the Piano Sonata K331/300i at the Wigmore Hall in June 2010 utterly un-Mozartian, even anti-Mozartian (Seen and Heard - review).
With his performance of the Jeunehomme concerto here I had hoped for a return to something closer to his old form in Mozart. I must admit that I didn’t come to this new recording with a completely innocent ear, as it’s already been praised in at least one newspaper and it’s been the Classic FM Album of the Week. That only made me listen all the more closely in case I found myself in disagreement.
I come to this concerto with other baggage; not least the fact that I’ve just been listening to Mitsuko Uchida’s recent performance as soloist and director and re-hearing not only Alfred Brendel’s first recording of the work, which I reviewed some time ago (Alto), but also his version with the ASMF and Neville Marriner (Decca), and Imogen Cooper’s recording (Avie):
- Decca 478 3539: The Cleveland Orchestra/Mitsuko Uchida (piano) (with Piano Concerto No.21 - review and Download News 2012/24)
- Musical Concepts Alto ALC1047: Alfred Brendel; Solisti di Zagreb/Antonio Janigro (with Piano Concerto No.14; Piano Sonata No.8) Bargain of the Month - see review
- Decca Duo 442 5712: Alfred Brendel; Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Neville Marriner (with Concertos Nos. 15, 22, 25 and 27) - a very competitive bargain version, 2 CDs for around £8.50.
- Avie AV2100: Northern Sinfonia/Imogen Cooper (piano) (with Piano Concerto No.23 - review and September 2009 Download Roundup
Uchida’s earlier performance with the ECO and Geoffrey Tate offers a rival bargain to the Brendel on another Decca Duo, 473 3132 (with Nos.14, 15, 17 and 18).
Greilsammer, who, in the notes to the Naïve release of Nos. 5, 6 and 8, writes of those works as Mozart in search of a distinctive voice, includes the Jeunehomme concerto at the heart of his new recording as an example of ‘Mozart in-between’, the declared theme of the album. Whilst it seems to me that Mozart was constantly in transition in several senses, K271 is a particularly good example; it’s his first really accomplished piano concerto, encompassing a variety of moods. All four rival recordings under consideration make that clear. Incidentally, we now know that the title Jeunehomme is a corruption of Jenamy, the name of the person for whom the work was intended.
I’m certainly not about to challenge the high opinion of the concerto; Einstein (the musicologist) even went so far as to dub it Mozart’s Eroica in an encomium printed in the Sony booklet. Nor is Greilsammer’s view of the music as a work in transition implausible - though he had proved himself very capable of writing some attractive music in those earlier concertos which Greilsammer has already recorded, at 21 in the year that he composed this concerto (1777) he had come of age legally and musically.
Brendel on Alto is the oldest recording under consideration but the sound has been made remarkably fresh in the new transfer. The couplings are slightly less enticing: Piano Concerto No.14 is a work on a smaller scale - it even exists in a cut-down version for piano and string quartet, recorded by Jos van Immerseel and Musica Eterna on a highly recommendable Channel Classics CD of Nos. 11, 13 and 14, CCS0990 - but Brendel makes it sound a little gem and the addition of the Piano Sonata No.8 brings the playing time up to over 70 minutes. At its bargain price, this deserves to be in every collection whatever other version of the Jeunehomme concerto you may have, as I hope I made clear in my original review. It sounds better than another budget-price Brendel recording, of Mozart: Piano Concerto No.17, No.27 (for two pianos) and the Piano Sonata for two pianos, with Walter Klien as partner in the duo works, which is also recommendable, despite some less than ideal sound (Regis RRC1388 - review).
No excuses at all need be made for the Decca Duo CD which contains the Brendel/Marriner recording; it’s a notable bargain, as is the companion 2-CD set of Nos. 19, 20, 21, 23, 24 and two Concert Rondos (442 2692). I would, however, steer you most of all in the direction of Imogen Cooper and the new Mitsuko Uchida recording. That’s formidable competition, but Greilsammer and his team are equal to the challenge in a convincing display of the extent to which he is back on Mozart form. I don’t know whether he had his concept of Mozart in-between two extremes of mood and expression as he was playing the music - I suspect that he was too involved in the performance to have the concept constantly in mind - but this performance illustrates the thesis at least as well as the benchmarks that I’ve mentioned.
If I hesitate to endorse this new recording unreservedly it’s because it comes, like fantaisie-fantasme, as part of a mish-mash of a programme. One reviewer has suggested that the whole is more than the sum of its parts; my view is entirely the opposite. As a concept album the programme depends on there being the contrast of light and shade which is stressed in the notes and also of development in progress. It’s not hard to find light and shade in Mozart’s music - it’s hardly a new concept - and his music was ‘in-between’ those opposites throughout his life; I’m just not convinced that this album offers a good opportunity to demonstrate these things or that it provides a worthy frame for the performance of the concerto.
The CD opens with a performance of the Symphony No.23, K181, which dates from four years before the piano concerto and is hardly an example of Mozart breaking through any barriers or combining different emotions. Much as I revere his music, the early symphonies hardly stand comparison with even the earliest of Haydn’s; if I were to choose a breakthrough symphony with a good balance of differing moods, it would be No.25, K183/173dB, though that too dates from 1773, thus neatly destroying my thesis of Mozart maturing at 21. Even Symphony No.29, K201/186a, which would be my next nomination for a mature symphony, dates from as early as 1774.
Be that as it may, Greilsammer directs a convincing performance of No.23, making the symphony sound more powerful than I remember from performances directed by Charles Mackerras (Telarc CD80217), Adam Fischer (DaCapo 6.220542) and Nicholas Ward (Naxos 8.550876), perhaps as a result of the timpani parts which Greilsammer has added.
We don’t know the exact dates of Mozart’s music for the play Thamos, King of Egypt, but it seems to be roughly contemporary with the Jeunehomme concerto. The two short excerpts included here are attractive and stylishly performed, but there’s not much to get your teeth into; they are heard to greater effect on a programme of similar light-weight Mozart such as the Decca Eloquence reissue of Peter Maag’s classic performance of four items from Thamos on 476 9702 (with Symphony No.38, the Lucio Silla overture and a selection of German Dances). It doesn’t help that the two items here are separated by the Denis Schuler work in a very different style, of which more anon.
Even more bizarre is the decision to end the CD with a counter-tenor aria from Mitridate. Granted that both the castrato voice and the opera seria were on their way out when Mozart wrote this opera, so there’s a sense of the dichotomy that Greilsammer was aiming for in constructing the programme. That said, I wasn’t convinced that this was an ideal way to end the disc. Lawrence Zazzo sings competently but his voice is a trifle squally by comparison with Andreas Scholl who, accompanied by the OAE and Roger Norrington, also gives the music a little more time to breathe (Heroes, Decca 466 1962). It would have been helpful, too, to have had the libretto of Venga pur.
As for Denis Schuler’s In-between I can say only that I wish that it hadn’t come between the two excerpts from Thamos. It’s so far outside my comfort zone that it may well stop me from reaching for this CD ever again, thereby confining my consumption of the Jeunehomme concerto to the Brendel (x2), Uchida (x2) and Cooper performances that I’ve listed. That’s a shame because the quality of the Mozart performances and recording on the new Sony release is such that this might well have been destined for frequent outings but there are so many other excellent versions to from which to choose. I imagine that it will be only a minority of Mozart-lovers that even like the Schuler let alone warm to it.
Stylish performances but the programme is too bitty and the modern work will put many Mozartians off.
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