Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, K453 (1784) [30:55]
Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K466 (1785) [31:23]
Piano Concerto No. 1 in F, K37 (1767) [17:03]
Ingrid Jacoby (piano)
Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner
rec. Abbey Road Studios, London, 26-28 November 2014, DDD
ICA CLASSICS ICAC5137 [79:36]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 13 in C, K415 (1782) [30:37]
Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, K453 (1784) [36:28]
Idil Biret (piano)
London Mozart Players/Patrick Gallois
rec. St Paul’s Church, New Southgate, London, 17-19 December 2014, DDD
IDIL BIRET ARCHIVE 8.571306 [67:05]
The opening theme of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 isn’t one you’d easily remember: it’s too quixotic, instruments echo snippets of phrases, joining in the party. There are frequent changes of perspective: the opening phrase is elegantly frivolous, the second (Jacoby tr. 1, 0:18; Biret tr. 4, 0:17) says let’s pause and just consider the beauty of effortlessly rising, enjoying the apex of the phrase, then gliding down. The second theme (Jacoby tr. 1, 1:04; Biret tr. 4, 1:08) is less eclectic and more memorable, yet its dusky mood is difficult to pinpoint. The third theme (Jacoby tr. 1, 3:16; Biret tr. 4, 3:37) is carefree and almost the piano’s sole property, The orchestra only take up a subsidiary phrase of it, yet this gives rise in turn to a lovely dialogue between oboe and flute plus a jolly bassoon backing. Such seamless yet relaxed interchange between piano and orchestra is one of the marvels of this concerto. Another is fashioning a development section (Jacoby tr. 1, 5:28; Biret tr. 4, 6:10) simply with woodwind soloists. They exchange rising and falling phrases while the piano accompanies with a complete rising and falling figure before introducing a dramatic variant of the opening theme. This makes the return of the original as welcome as a stable, old friend.
So how do the two new recordings here respond to these features? Marriner’s orchestral introduction dances and sparkles. There are strong dynamic contrasts as the opening theme progresses yet there's a suave treatment of the second theme. Jacoby projects the opening phrase with bounce yet the second’s sudden reflection is finely nuanced. Her treatment of the third theme is jaunty on its first appearance but more dainty on its second. In Mozart’s cadenza she combines excitement and poise through judicious variation in tempo. In sum, the Jacoby/Marriner is bright, stylish and spirited. The emphasis is on the progression, the horizontal aspect, of the music. The Biret/Gallois is quite different: the first movement times at 13:31 against Jacoby/Marriner’s 11:50. Gallois’s orchestral introduction is more refined and reflective. Its emphasis is on the vertical aspect of the music, its harmonies and density. Come the second theme and the second violin and viola parts are more noticeable. Biret treats gently both her opening and second phrases but what I found striking about here is the finely balanced easy companionship, the give and take, she forges with the orchestra. This makes for a more relaxed treatment of the second theme in particular but also generally. Biret brings to her third theme an easy lilt the first time and a glisteningly joyful quality on its return. Her treatment of tempo in Mozart’s cadenza abstains from the variation of Jacoby’s account. Even so, Biret’s cadenza is more ostentatious than the rest of her performance, jaunty at the outset and generally fluent and vivacious. At the final return of the second theme on the piano in octaves, Biret is creamy where Jacoby favours a more dramatic, steely approach. In sum, Jacoby/Marriner supercharge the music along while Biret/Gallois leave it to unfold.
A welcome feature of the ICA CD is Jacoby's comments on the works incorporated in its booklet notes. She points out that the opening of the slow movement is a variant of the first movement's theme. I hadn't noticed this before, yet it changes your appreciation of the music in both contexts. In this slow movement it's really too brief to be termed a theme: it's more like a question or provocation and gets different responses as the movement progresses. The first response, by the orchestra, is a trio between oboe, flute and bassoon, in which the music echoes and intertwines with the utmost serenity. The second response, by piano, is a passionate outcry. It seems to me Marriner's orchestral opening anticipates this in thrusting the music, marked Andante, forward. This imparts a protesting quality when it comes to the strings’ occasional loud punctuation of the woodwind trio. To the piano's opening Arioso Jacoby then brings a fiery element, despite its relatively soft dynamic. Its comment on the return of the trio material is equally splenetic. By the time we get to the development (tr. 2, 4:50), the response has turned sad. Later it becomes fractious until, with a marvellously rich response in E flat major (6:35), there's a transforming acceptance. Jacoby can then show Mozart's cadenza to be at first sighing, pained yet always with an optimistic perspective. It ends playfully as it rises from the depths. In this movement again Biret/Gallois, timing at 14:19, are significantly more measured than Jacoby/Marriner at 11:03. This creates a sensitively meditative quality, if you appreciate it, or a rather frozen, slow motion if you don’t. I appreciate it but would have liked it a touch faster. The early strings’ loud punctuation is now just underpinning. The piano’s first response is sad but still finds beauty in sadness. It's like being bereaved but grateful for the memories of the loved one. It’s at the development (tr. 5, 6:12) that bleakness arrives and the feeling of loss turns to desolation with Biret making more of the writhing solo piano passage. Even in the density of her E flat major passage (8:41) there’s some bitterness. Then through a more fluent manner for the first section of her cadenza Biret gradually becomes more calm and accepting.
In complete change of mood, the finale is a zany set of variations on a jocular theme. Marriner immediately emphasises its jauntiness by bouncing the ends of phrases when oboes and bassoons join violins and flute. Gallois gives more attention to the cheeriness of the solo flute. In Variation 1 (Jacoby tr. 3, 0:49; Biret tr. 6, 0:52) the piano has a freer, more airy take on the theme. In Variation 2 (Jacoby, 1:39; Biret 1:43) the piano accompanies the theme in the woodwind with sturdy quaver triplets. Biret here is more varied than Jacoby, being lighter in the second part. Variation 3 (Jacoby, 2:28; Biret 2:34) sees the woodwind with a freer melodic take and the piano with an increasingly florid response. Gallois’s woodwind here project in a more rustic manner and Biret’s response is more merry than Jacoby’s. Variation 4 (Jacoby 3:21; Biret 3:31) has minimized the theme to a mysterious, hazy, partial recollection in G minor. Marriner makes the contrast stand out with something of an impressionistic quality where Gallois gives us a more present, rather gloomy hinterland. We’re back in G major for a boisterous Variation 5 (Jacoby 4:15; Biret 4:29) which gives way to a coda of brilliance and verve from Jacoby/Marriner. Biret/Gallois, with more bucolic horns, emphasise robustness and festivity.
Which recording you prefer depends on the sort of interpretation you want. I have given you the evidence to help you to choose. There are also the couplings to consider. Jacoby/Marriner bring one of Mozart’s most known and recorded concertos, Piano Concerto 20. Its opening movement is about strategies for averting an impending tragedy. The piano’s first solo (tr. 4, 3:42) is an aria which is the movement’s third theme. It's a sympathetic commentary on the orchestra’s second theme (1:04), itself a standing back from the gradually unfolded, determined implacability of the opening theme. Jacoby plays that first solo with the utmost eloquence and outpouring of feeling which enables her later to move on smoothly to a fourth theme (4:08). This is playfully skittish in manner and has the quality of a fantasy of happier times. Most pianists play Beethoven’s cadenza but Jacoby prefers to play her own adaptation of one by Paul Badura-Skoda which is closer to Mozart in style albeit less virtuosic and exciting. It offers a grim version of the fourth theme which becomes calmer, eloquent and sorrowing.
The slow movement is, on the surface, smooth and untroubled until the end of its second phrase when the penultimate note appoggiatura, delaying its innocent resolution, offers a glimpse of underlying disquiet. Its first episode (tr. 5, 1:54) allows Jacoby a carefree display rather like a ballerina parading her expertise but there's a pleading quality to it as well. Jacoby provides a deal of added decoration, especially of repeated phrases, all beautifully judged. The second episode (4:07) is more biting and dark but also fluent with piquant instrumental clarity which serves as a kind of purging. Jacoby gives the return of the opening theme, at first on the piano, a totally soothing innocence. In the finale the impetuousness and urgency of Jacoby’s opening theme and Marriner’s repeat sets a mood which sweeps along the more conciliatory second theme (tr. 6, 0:58). This can live with the third (1:24) becoming more relaxed while the fourth (2:06) is jolly. This is neat because the fourth theme ending the concerto in D major then becomes a pleasant, but not incongruous, surprise. Jacoby’s cadenza, again adapted from Badura-Skoda, softens the contours of the opening theme and dwells on the second.
Biret and Gallois's coupling is the less well known Piano Concerto 13. This is the first of Mozart's concertos with a military flavour. The opening, featuring horns, trumpets and drums, is given weight and grandeur by Gallois but there are also gentler elements to the entourage. The piano never plays the orchestra's opening theme. To its opening theme, the second of them, Biret brings comparable confidence and jollity and later adds mercurial thoughts after the return of the orchestral theme. Most beguiling, however, is the suave and maturely considered third theme (tr. 1, 3:04) which is only the piano's. Biret and Gallois press firmly forward in the glittering parade, the piano launching into running semiquavers over the orchestral theme. Biret gives full brilliance to Mozart's cadenza which treats the third theme rather skittishly.
The slow movement is a total escape from the military in its idyllic warmth and contentment. Gallois finds a pleasing languor in the orchestral opening, to which Biret's solo repeat adds a touch more activity and character through its added ornaments without fuss or disturbing the overall mood. So seamless is the transition to the central episode (tr. 2, 2:37) it appears to grow organically from the opening theme, while Mozart's cadenza offers more thoughtful musing then dainty dancing. With carefree skipping along first from Biret, then from Gallois, it looks like party time for the finale. A second theme (tr. 3, 0:46) is more airy yet at ease with itself before leading into more boisterous festivity. All that is halted by a third theme for piano alone, a mournful recollection in C minor of sadder times, sensitively shaped by Biret. It's a mood that somehow haunts the rest of the movement. At one point the orchestra presents the second theme in the minor and the piano’s return of the third theme comes with increased ornamentation which makes it seem rather indulgent notwithstanding Biret's solicitous observation of it. When the cheery opening theme returns for the final time, it and the work fade quietly.
Jacoby/Marriner provide a 17-minute bonus in Mozart’s Piano Concerto 1, for which Mozart only provided an orchestral cloak around the melodies of other composers, as identified in this review’s heading. The musical substance is flimsy but there are some neat touches in Mozart’s arrangement, like the interplay between soloist and first violins (tr. 7, from 1:16). The whole is brightly executed by Jacoby/Marriner.
Mozart (K453 first and second movements)
Badura-Skoda/Jacoby (K466 first and third movements)
Lili Kraus (K37 second and third movements)
K37 first movement after Violin Sonata op. 1 no. 5 of Hermann Raupach, second movement? after source unknown, third movement after Harpsichord Sonata op. 2 no. 3 of Leontzi Honauer.
Mozart (K453 and K415 first and second movements)