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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 11 in F major, K413/387a [23:26]
Piano Concerto No. 13 in C major, K415/387b [26:27]
Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major, K414/385p [24:34]
Marie Kuijken (fortepiano: K413)
Veronica Kuijken (fortepiano: K414/5)
La Petite Band/Sigiswald Kuijken
rec. 2016, Kapel Holland College, Leuven, Belgium

Hummel made chamber-music versions of a number of Mozart’s piano concertos and symphonies for various small instrumental combinations to include the piano. But when Mozart himself decided to make chamber versions of the three piano concertos recorded here, while he also did this to enhance their appeal, and increase his burgeoning reputation, both as a virtuoso pianist and composer, he did, of course, have another, more fundamental and somewhat less-artistic reason for doing so.

Mozart wrote these three concertos a year after he had settled in Vienna, and was now, to all intents and purposes, a freelance musician with mouths to feed. He had already composed four other piano concertos – one playable by three, or two players – and was now embarked on writing his opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail, so the idea of capitalizing on his fame to date, and which would hopefully have a similar effect on his finances, was a sound one – no pun intended.

But whereas some composers might simply have made the wind and any timpani parts optional, leaving the strings to accompany as best they could – perhaps with a minimum of juggling where an important melody or two were initially assigned to the now-missing winds – Mozart considered his task more as a challenge than a limitation from the very outset. This resulted in a score that was made-to-measure for both eventualities, from a conventional orchestral performance to a chamber version. In the latter, he achieved this by writing for the strings with extreme care, then allowing the wind parts, when used, to enhance the ensemble and add various extra colouring and timbres, but not to be seen as absolutely essential in the overall scheme of things – a significantly harder undertaking.

There are, though, two other issues which need considering. In making his chamber-music version, Mozart intended that it be played by a keyboard instrument – we shall come to that later – and string quartet, namely two violins, viola, and cello. In his sleeve-note, Sigismund Kuijken explains that he has borrowed from the conventional orchestral-strings set-up, and prefers to use two violins, viola, and double bass instead. He makes a very good case for this, and the result is heard to good effect on the recorded performance. In Mozart’s and Haydn’s more mature string quartets, the cello has a role that is far more than a simple bassline, whereas in Mozart’s chamber-version of the three concertos, the cello line is sometimes not a lot more than a simple bass, and not really what the instrument does best. By assigning it to the double-bass instead, Kuijken achieves two things. Firstly, the bass line per se is now more prominent and able to support the extra weight of the solo instrument, but, and more crucially, the line is now played at 16-foot pitch – that is, an octave lower than would be the case were the same notes played on the cello. This significantly extends the harmonic range, and gives more space between the instrumental bass line, and that which the soloist’s left hand provides. Kuijken does have the advantage of founding La Petite Bande (Belgium) back in 1972, an ensemble that has often worked very successfully on the principle of minimal instrumental scoring. This will have given him a special insight into balance, and the perceived need, on this occasion, to make this cello/double-bass substitution.

In a further bid to make these chamber-music versions even more user-friendly and popular, the concertos were advertised as being written for harpsichord or fortepiano, even though, at the time, the former was definitely in a state of decline, as the latter took over, leading ultimately to the supremacy of the pianoforte itself. Here again, Kuijken’s decision to use a copy of an Andreas Stein fortepiano (Augsburg, ca. 1785) distinctly pays off as far as the recording goes. Interestingly, while Kuijken’s sleeve-notes (in English and French) are most informative, there is no analysis, or even brief description of any of the three concertos, or their individual movements. And why should there be? The music can speak for itself, and today such additional information is available merely a mouse-click away anyway.

The CD opens with Piano Concerto No 11 in F major, where the soloist is Marie Kuijken – one of Sigismund Kuijken’s musical offspring, and an acclaimed soprano, too. The opening Allegro in triple time – Mozart, in fact, wrote only two other concertos with first movements in 3/4 (Nos 14 and 24) – is taken at a well-measured tempo, which neither drags nor allows the musical ideas to slip by unnoticed. Mozart’s concertos as a whole are designed to impress and satisfy an audience’s needs, but sometimes this can result in performers’ unrealistic tempi, which often then have the opposite effect. The strings use contemporary playing practices, especially in terms of vibrato, but this further enhances and unifies the impact of the performance, which a bloated reading with a nine-foot Steinway concert-grand pitted against an orchestra of symphonic proportions often does not. The ensuing Larghetto is charmingly despatched, before the composer returns to triple time for the Tempo di Minuetto finale to round off this attractive early concerto.

Interestingly, the second concerto recorded is No 13, rather than No 12, which then concludes the CD. Here the soloist is Marie’s sister Veronica, who is also an accomplished violinist. The opening Allegro has a thematic similarity with the later C major Concerto No 21, but opens with a fugato section – that is, where the entries follow one another in close succession like a fugue. Once more there is real vitality in the performance, both from the supporting strings and fortepianist. Over the years the work hasn’t always been well received in every quarter, largely because it was felt that, after the first tutti and solo entry, the promise of the opening begins to dissipate. Perhaps, then, it’s a testimony to the effectiveness of the playing here that would seem to gainsay most if not all the hitherto negative comments. The Andante slow movement, again in triple time, is expressively given, with real room to breathe as it reaches its close, and provides a perfect prelude to the lively and ebullient finale that opens in a bouncy 6/8 Allegro. But before two minutes have elapsed the mood, tempo and tonality change for an extended slow episode in the tonic minor (C minor). High spirits are quickly restored, though, further enhanced by an effective episode in the relative minor (A minor). The earlier slow C minor section does return, but, following a short cadenza, the cheerful Rondeau theme picks up once more. However, Mozart might be tempting the listener to expect another brilliant conclusion, on reaching a tonic-pedal in the bass, the finale seems to fizzle out, in quite understated fashion. No 12 is arguably the best known of these three early Vienna works, and so, possibly also taking into account No 13’s not-overly impressive ending, it is the work charged with finishing the present CD.

Piano Concerto No 12 in A major is, in many ways, the most Mozartian of the three works heard here. The key is one which the composer used with a high degree of consistency in his output, and often seems to elicit a fresh, vernal quality, preference for smooth cantabile melodies, and a general lack of obviously strenuous counterpoint – see his Clarinet Concerto, Clarinet Quintet, and later Piano Concerto in the same key, K488, as good examples.

The first movement opens with a gracefully-curving subject, marked Allegro and contains some lovely themes on the way. The following Andante is in D major, a key normally reserved for Mozart’s more brilliant moments, but on this occasion it is a pensive, almost solemn slow movement. It is notable, in fact, for quoting a theme from the overture to La calamita de cuori by Johann Christian Bach, Mozart’s former mentor in London, who had died recently – perhaps Mozart conceived it by way of a musical epitaph for the old master.

The finale is another Rondeau, this time marked Allegretto, and an affable little movement though which is often played Allegro, to its detriment. Too quick a pace spoils the effect of the frequent trills, and the later demisemiquaver (thirty-second note) runs. Here, though, Veronica Kuijken’s finely-honed technique ensures that every nuance of the writing is faithfully and articulately presented, in a performance of real élan.

There are so many recordings of Mozart piano concertos already available, that it might be hard to see where this one might fit in. Suffice it to say that, if you’re looking for these three concertos together, are interested in far-more-intimate playing, though which still respects the raison d’être of the concerto-form, and an instrumental sound as close to what audiences might have heard at the time, then this new CD is definitely an attractive proposition. Couple this with a superb performance, and recording – which sounds perfectly fine even on my bog-standard CD player – then this should be more than enough to sway the balance.
Philip R Buttall



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