Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No.9 in E flat major K271 (1771) [32:06]
Piano Concerto No.17 in G major K453 (1784) [31:01]
Olga Pashchenko (fortepiano)
rec. October 2020, Amuz-Augustinus Muziekcentrum, Antwerp, Belgium
Reviewed as downloaded from press preview.
The first question in reviewing Mozart piano concertos these days is
whether one is comparing the new recording to all other available
recordings or whether a distinction is to made between those on the
fortepiano with period instruments and those on the modern piano with
modern accompaniment. Personally, I tend to lump them all together as
possible interpretations of Mozart, but I suspect the word ‘fortepiano’ will
have already deterred those with a strong dislike for that particular
Pashchenko uses two different instruments but both sound good and are very
well recorded. There is minimal noise from the mechanics and the slightly
more generous acoustic stops the timbre seeming thin, as unfortunately it
too often does on recordings of the fortepiano. On one of my comparison
recordings of No.17, Ronald Brautigam’s fortepiano sounds rather tinny next
to Pashchenko’s much more rounded sound. The fortepiano she uses for K271
has a magnificently resonant bass register.
Pashchenko herself is a much-admired Russian fortepiano specialist. I first
came across her as duet partner to Alexander Melnikov in the two-piano
arrangement of Debussy’s La Mer. That recording was one of my highlights of
the Debussy year 2018 and this gorgeous CD will, I’m sure, add further
lustre to her reputation.
The sleeve notes to this release make play of the feminine link between
these two particular concertos. The earlier of the two, K271, was written
for the visit of a piano playing lady whom history remembers as Madame
Jeunehomme but who, according to the entertaining sleeve notes, was
actually called Jenamy. K453 was originally written for Barbara Ployer, one
of Mozart’s students. Mozart clearly had a high opinion of her talents
since this was the finest concerto he had written up to that point.
As the same sleeve note goes on to slyly ask: were any of Mozart’s piano
concertos ever really written for anyone but himself? It is an interesting
question given the way he tailored arias in his operas to suit particular
singers. The evidence of the music would suggest that either he had himself
in mind when writing piano concertos, or for some peculiar reason he felt
little need to modify his approach for particular performers. It cannot
even be claimed that he only did this for singers, since his horn concertos
show clear signs of being written with the strengths of a particular
performer in mind.
All this aside, it is clear that K271 was designed to show off the full
range of Mozart’s compositional talents. Madame Jenamy was en route to
Paris, then the centre of musical fashion. I imagine that Mozart was
anxious to demonstrate that he wasn’t some sort of small-town hick but au
fait with all the latest currents in music. The minuet at the heart of the
finale seems the last word in taste and refinement. The extraordinary pain
expressed in the slow movement must have taken even the worldly Madame
Jenamy aback! Perhaps Mozart felt that, in her, he had a performer who
might appreciate such music. We will never know, but what we do have is a
concerto that represents a quantum leap in musical history.
Much is made of
the early entry of the soloist after the orchestra’s opening rhetorical
gesture in that it supposedly anticipates the dramatic opening of
Beethoven’s Fourth piano concerto by the soloist. The effect is somewhat
watered down by the tendency of fortepiano soloists to play along with
opening orchestral tutti like a kind of continuo, but it is still a fine
effect and further evidence that Mozart was out to impress his visiting
soloist. Pashchenko, who never misses a dramatic trick, romps through this
opening. There is often a sense that, in playing a modern piano, pianists
have to hold themselves a back little in Mozart where those playing the
fortepiano can let themselves off the leash, so to speak, without drowning
everyone else out in the process.
The slow movement of K271 on this disc is simply superb. Pashchenko’s
funereal tread beneath the aching muted strings produces a remarkable
effect. Pleasingly, she and her orchestra never allow sentiment to distort
the balancing elegance of the music. If anything, that little hint of
restraint is what makes this performance so potent. Her way with the
cadenza in this movement, as with all the cadenzas in both concertos, is
full of fantasy and spontaneity.
In the finale, the allegros have all the exuberance one could ask for, and
the minuet section is elegance personified. Pashchenko brings just a hint
of coquetry to the minuet, which averts the danger of it sounding like a
second slow movement.
My reference version of this concerto is Ashkenazy with István Kertész and
the LSO in 1966 (István Kertész - The London Years, Decca 4786420,
14 hours, download only, or Decca 4832588, with Concertos No.8 and Rondo,
K386, single album, download only, no booklet). Predictably Ashkenazy is a
patrician interpreter but Pashchenko yields little in her own more earthy
For such a popular concerto, No.17 doesn’t often get the performances it
deserves. Interpreters are required to balance the verve of Mozart’s
teeming invention with a pronounced sensual streak. The latter is most
pronounced in the chromaticisms of the slow movement, but it runs through
all three movements, even the jovial finale. Staying with fortepiano
recordings, Malcolm Bilson with John Eliot Gardiner get the energy right
but largely miss the sensuality. The Brautigam recording mentioned earlier
sadly seems to miss both.
I am happy to say that Pashchenko and colleagues catch both beautifully.
Pashchenko is full of play and exuberance but never at the expense of the
darker undercurrents of the music.
Woodwind are even more important in No.17 than in K271, and here Il
Gardellino really come into their own. I’m a little embarrassed to say my
only previous acquaintance with them was a very enjoyable disc of concertos
by CPE Bach. They are clearly an outfit to be reckoned with. All of the
woodwind excel here, though I want to give special mention to the lovely
fat-sounding horns. One of the great advantages of period horns is that
they can really go for it without drowning out everyone else.
As with K271, the heart of Pashchenko’s performance is the slow movement.
It is easy to think of this music as dark. It certainly sounds nocturnal
but it seems to me passionate, erotic even, rather melancholy. Pires and
Uchida both sound solemn to the point of despair in this movement. Some
might find Pashchenko a little too robust, but I like this earthy side to
this performance, which feels more Act 4 of Figaro rather than a stately
Donna Anna. Paschenko does not lack depth when the music turns to the minor
at the start of the development. She is able to achieve a genuine sotto
voce on the fortepiano, which is thoroughly in tune with the music. Brendel
is exemplary here, but his soliloquy is more Hamlet where Pashchenko’s is
the heartache of the Countess. You can tell by my comparisons, that I feel
Pashchenko’s conception of these works is essentially operatic rather than
symphonic, which I think is as it should be. Without a sense of the
dramatic narrative of these works, something of their magic gets lost and
I, for one, believe that, in almost everything he wrote, Mozart was
I was very pleased that Pashchenko pays attention to the Allegretto marking
of the finale rather than charging off like a rocket as so many period
practitioners feel the need to – though in fairness neither Bilson nor
Brautigam do in this movement. This more modest pace allows Pashchenko and
the orchestra ample time to properly articulate Mozart’s comedy. It also
means that they can genuinely and excitingly up the tempo at the end. Those
lovely horns again in full cry!
My reference performance for No.17 is a 1961 recording by Hans
Richter-Haaser with a vintage Philharmonia under yet again that consummate
Mozartian István Kertész. Sadly, it is no longer available. I had to track
it down on YouTube, of all places, to check if it was good as I remembered
(it was!). I mention it on the off chance that some enterprising label like
Beulah can be cajoled into reissuing it!
Until that happens, I suspect all but those most allergic to the fortepiano
will find Pashchenko’s dashing interpretation a fine alternative. I do hope
this is the beginning of a series, as I would love to hear what these
performers would make of the later concertos.