Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No.17 in G, K453 (1784) [30:19]
Piano Concerto No.18 in B flat, K456 (1784) [29:14]
Divertimento in B flat, K137 (1772) [10:02]
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
Manchester Camerata/Gábor Takács-Nagy
rec. Royal Northern College of Music Concert Hall, Manchester, 15-16 March 2016
CHANDOS CHAN10929 [74:42] 

Recently I compared two new recordings of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17, by Ingrid Jacoby (ICA Classics ICAC 5137) and Idil Biret (8.571306) (review). Now here's a third, by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. Jacoby's is an interpretation of pizzazz, Biret's of lyrical reflection. Bavouzet has something of the characteristics of both. The Manchester Camerata's orchestral introduction is both elegant and vivacious. The second theme (tr. 1, 1:07) is presented with warmth yet the second violin and viola parts are also clear. Bavouzet's entrance reflects rippling merriment, appreciable dexterity, nimbleness of foot yet lightness of articulation, fully matched by the orchestra. Together both achieve an intensity of union through a sense of progression without detriment to living in the moment. Bavouzet makes the third theme (3:21), largely the piano's, an extension of this opening mood, though more reflective on its second appearance. At the final return of the second theme on the piano in octaves Bavouzet is initially calm,  then adds a touch of edge. He plays Mozart's cadenza brightly and with a sense of delight, making fine dynamic contrasts and bringing verve to the passages in semiquavers.  In sum, considerable finesse: nothing is forced yet everything sparkles.

In the outer movements Bavouzet is marginally faster than Jacoby. In the slow movement Bavouzet times at 9:56, Jacoby at 11:03, Biret at 14:19. Yet I wouldn't say Bavouzet's sounds faster than the marked Andante, rather that Biret is closer to Adagietto. Tá​​​​kacs-Nagy beautifully shapes the orchestral introduction. The strings' loud punctuation of the woodwind trio is suitably firm but still of an underpinning nature. The piano's opening has a caring, elegiac quality but the fast tempo renders its demisemiquavers of a decorative objectivity which moderates the mood. Come the development (tr. 3, 4:16) desolation is squarely faced. That too is tempered by the rich reserves demonstrated in the E flat major passage (5:49) at the same time eloquently acknowledging the prevailing sadness. Sensitive to this and with judicious variation of tempo, Bavouzet plays Mozart's cadenza with serene poise yet with touches looking to a brighter future.

Tá​​​​kacs-Nagy's gleeful treatment of the appoggiaturas in the orchestral introduction sets the tone of the finale. Bavouzet's added ornamentation in the repeated strains of Variation 1 (tr. 5, 0:49) are delightful. The work of the first violins in matching him in the second strain is a notable example of the deftness with which soloist and orchestra cohere. In the scampering humour of Variation 3 (2:24) Bavouzet gives the impression of almost falling over himself, but by Variation 4 (3:15) he provides icy poise in response to a very soft, other-worldly orchestral haze. This is before Variation 5 (4:13) and the coda are back to a nimbly frolicking exchange between soloist and orchestra. I have referred to Bavouzet's treatment of Mozart's cadenzas (trs. 13, 14) but he also plays his own (trs. 2, 4). That for the first movement begins in sparkling display, contrasted by a minor key version of the second theme and then a merry romp of semiquaver passages with the occasional nod at Debussy.  That for the second movement is reflective, spotlighting the development material before the opening theme returns in 20th century harmonization. That said, this, for me, evoked the visionary quality and warmth of Beethoven.

Piano Concerto No. 18 is distinctively different. Mozart's interest isn't here in extended themes but in transforming motifs and allowing divergent moods to glide into each other. The first movement starts with a soft theme with a hint of a march strut. This gives way to a loud, vivacious theme (tr. 6, 0:31) which reappears throughout the movement. That is halted by a ruminative series of descending chords (0:47). The oboes thrust this aside with some bucolic jollity (1:07) which grows more spruce and march-like. The thoughtful chords then appear in shorter but more memorable and calming form (1:32) before the march ditty is finally firmly established (1:44) ... and there's the nub of the movement. Add the piano, which has another theme of an aspiring nature — which only it plays (2:52) — but those becalming chords halt that too. This is all laid out with exemplary clarity by the Manchester Camerata with Bavouzet who provides a bubbling and scintillating gloss. He plays Mozart's cadenza with a mix of brilliance, reflection, charm and showmanship.

The slow movement has just one theme in two distinct sections: the first intensely sorrowing, the second initially of brighter mood which then gradually resigns itself to sorrow again. This composite is then the subject of five variations. The first (tr. 7, 1:46) is largely a piano solo showcasing the theme highly and ingeniously decorated. That Bavouzet provides further intricate decoration in the repeats adds to your appreciation of the range of intensity. Variation 2 (3:33) has the flute leading with the theme in its first section, the oboes in its second while the piano maintains a heady succession of demisemiquavers. In Variation 3 (5:12) the piano pleads poignantly against a resolute orchestra sure of its own dominance. Variation 4 (6:52) offers a  G major respite for both. Back in G minor, Variation 5 (8:10) finds the piano's demisemiquavers now calmly in accord with the first violins' insistence on the simple pathos of the theme, the repetition of whose opening is stated with chaste simplicity by both orchestra and piano in the movement's coda. The transparency of the presentation by both the Manchester Camerata and Bavouzet adds to the heartache.

A chirpy rondo theme begins an effervescent finale. Its leaping third theme (tr. 8, 1:39) enables Bavouzet to be especially animated, thereafter scrunching his appoggiaturas. Fittingly therefore he brings out all the exuberance and glitter of  Mozart's cadenza. I compared the 1984 recording by András Schiff with the Camerata Academica des Mozarteums Salzburg/Sá​​ndor Végh (Presto 4142892 licensed from Decca). Timing at 7:57 against Bavouzet/Takács-Nagy's 7:23, Schiff/Végh find an underlying calm beyond their merriment. Add to this a lighter leaping third theme, a more inward quality to the piano solos and a more dainty cadenza anticipating a calmer reprise of the rondo theme which then more appropriately introduces the growingly tranquil coda. Schiff also invests the B minor second episode with a more tragic cast than Bavouzet's more impassively stoic arioso at 3:30. Yet overall on this CD Bavouzet's élan, sometimes devil-may-care, is matched by the Manchester Camerata's vivacity.

Though composed 12 years earlier, the slow movement which opens an attractive bonus, the Divertimento in B flat, has comparable contrasts of dynamic, mood and phrasing to those opening Piano Concerto 17. For instance, its second phrase (tr. 9, 0:38) features the languor of a sustained note and slight rise followed by three skittishly rising, ornamented quavers with quaver rests between them. The second, fast movement is from the Manchester Camerata more dancing and symphonic, with crisp chording. The finale, also fast, is more genial with a soft closing phrase repeated loud.
Michael Greenhalgh  

Previous review: Marc Rochester

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