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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No 22 in E-flat, K482 (1785) [34:30]
Piano Concerto No 24 in C minor, K491 (1786) [30:31]
Charles Richard-Hamelin (piano), Les Violons du Roy/Jonathan Cohen
rec. 8-10 July 2019, La Salle Raoul-Jobin, Palais Montcalm, Québec, Canada
ANALEKTA AN29147 [65:01]

In the Concerto 22 opening I like Les Violons du Roy’s crisp tuttis and mellifluous wind. How sunny yet penetrating the second part of the first theme (tr. 1, 0:37), begun by the flute and continued by a duet of clarinets, then bassoons, a wistful savouring within the overall martial splendour. The second theme on flute and bassoon (1:33) mocks this, the whole presentation by Jonathan Cohen neat and perky. Charles Richard-Hamelin enters on piano, very cool, his rather remote variation of the opening theme like a jazz riff. Later come an urbane third theme (4:39) and dégagé fourth theme (7:32). No Mozart cadenza survives, so Richard-Hamelin plays his own with great fun recalling all the themes as if from a bran tub, but in a freshly modulated state, whereupon Les Violons’ postlude blazes with equal exhilaration.

I compare Leif Ove Andsnes, piano-conductor with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, recorded in 2020 (Sony 19439742462). Though his early wind contributions are less telling, his first movement, slightly slower, 13:20 against 13:02, is more concentrated. The second theme from the start is smoother, the introduction tutti more heroic, the opening piano solo more purposive and with a vibrant thrust once the semiquaver runs kick in. Now you feel a close integration between the orchestra and soloist. Andsnes’ third theme is more dancing, his fourth theme more skipping, his recap of the second theme more charming. Andsnes plays a cadenza by his recording producer, John Fraser. Timing at 1:52 against Richard-Hamelin’s 1:18, it’s more ostentatious and provides further twists to the first theme in a hearty, barnstorming climax.

The Andante slow movement begins with an eloquent theme in muted strings in C minor, sad and seeking relief. The sforzandos near the end for Cohen show pain, for Andsnes protest. Three variations and two episodes follow. In Variation 1 (tr. 2, 1:34) Richard-Hamelin becalms, sensitive to personal pain but offering glimpses of hope. Andsnes’ treatment of the appoggiaturas and leaps continue his protests as conductor. In Episode 1 (3:04) Cohen makes the light shine in a slightly faster, cheerier wind serenade in E flat major where Andsnes’ steadier, gradual opening out I find more credible. But in Variation 2 (4:08) Richard-Hamelin seems overwhelmed by the weight of the running demisemiquavers in his left hand and lower strings intoning the first theme like a funeral march. With Andsnes you feel he’s striving to master the situation. Episode 2 (5:18) brings great joy in C major with Cohen’s glorious playing by flute and bassoon in duet. Andsnes’ duettists seem more observing than feeling. Variation 3 (6:06) mixes an obdurate tutti from Cohen and Richard-Hamelin’s eloquent pleading diffusing the angst. Andsnes prefers a tenser conflict between orchestra and piano, the latter steadfast. In the coda (7:45) clarinet, bassoon and then flute keen the final elegy, but Richard-Hamelin smooths things out into a calm neutrality. From Andsnes the wind pain and piano ornamentation is more pressing before noticeably slowing, so all anguish finally ends in peace.

The Allegro rondo finale makes whoopee in E-flat major with its theme plus a second contented one started by clarinet (tr. 3, 0:59), suave variant by piano (1:25) and courtly episode theme (2:26). But the surprise is a central Andantino cantabile (tr. 3, 4:30): warm clarinets and horns start, piano and strings respond, languid and reflective from Cohen and Richard-Hamelin like an aria of reconciliation. Following the rondo and episode recap Richard-Hamelin’s cadenza showcases the themes in fresh modulations with Beethovenian crashes mixed in and a gentler blending of the rondo theme in the right and episode theme in the left hand. Andsnes, timing at 10:40 to Richard-Hamelin’s 12:11, offers a zippier, more seamless Allegro of frothier semiquaver runs. His quieter Andantino has an alluring reverence, though marred by Andsnes’ extra ornamentation. He plays Geza Anda’s cadenza of 36 seconds: a celebratory, fast variant of the rondo theme bouncily realized.

Concerto 24 has the rarity value of one of only two in a minor key and is appreciably crafted, an instance being the two staccato crotchets at the end of the first phrase: how to play? Cohen goes for crisply and a touch pert, but not waspish. The first theme is built from that first phrase in a fiery f tutti, then mulled over by oboe and flute and converted to descending phrases on flute and bassoon. A pattern is set. What was definite becomes meandering and the piano’s first solo is a meditation: when it takes up a wider version of the orchestra’s leap it’s not staccato. Soon the piano creates from its wandering the second theme, in E-flat major (tr. 4, 3:30) and the oboe creates a kind of cousin third theme (4:40), idyllic stuff. In the development, the orchestral tuttis become more hostile, the piano version of the first theme darker, the oboe theme sombre in C minor (8:59) and the piano’s second theme desolate in that key (9:17). Richard-Hamelin’s cadenza begins with a dark-grained reference to the second theme, followed by a lighter recall before a fantasia like melange of potential directions for the first theme.

The Larghetto slow movement brings E-flat major repose: a simple piano theme, smiling orchestral response, the piano continuing to lead and then decorate the musical line, with Richard-Hamelin adding further decoration as implied, though latterly in Episode 2 (tr. 5, 3:24), for me, overdoing it. That episode, in A-flat major, is all contented wind and comfortable piano, while Episode 1 (1:38) had offered the contrast of some agitation in C minor.

To this key we return in the Allegretto finale in variation form. The four-phrase theme teases: two nonchalant phrases, then a preening one whose chutzpah, a double appoggiatura (tr. 6, 0:09), is repeated (0:11) in the final phrase. The second strain does the same with chromatic jiggery-pokery, further elaborated by a now amused piano in Variation 1 (0:54). Variation 2 (1:46) features chirpy woodwind and flashy piano semiquavers, Variation 3 (2:38) the piano and then orchestra bouncing with the original theme. Variation 4 (3:33) is woodwind bliss in A-flat major, Variation 5 (4:28) a piano meditation more clouded, rigorous and chromatic, Variation 6 (5:35), a garden of delight in C major alternating between woodwind and piano and strings. With Variation 7 (6:43) the original theme slips back, the pulse more pressing. It ends with a pause for an eingang (mini-cadenza, 7:15). But I feel Richard-Hamelin extending this to 28 seconds unduly distracts from the change following: the theme now in 6/8 rhythm as a jig, as if a dance of death, emphatically, ineluctably in C minor.

Michael Greenhalgh

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