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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No 25 in C, K503 (1786)
Piano Concerto No 20 in D minor, K466 (1785)
Anne-Marie McDermott (piano)
Odense Symfoniorkester/Sebastian Lang-Lessing
rec. 2020, Carl Nielsen Hall, Odense, Denmark
Piano Concertos, Vol. 4
BRIDGE 9562 [66]

Concerto No 20 is the more striking. Its expectant opening orchestral theme, beginning piano, takes just 27 seconds in this account before the thud of the first forte. The rest of the movement alternates this piano and forte, charting a varying response to foreboding. The second theme (tr. 4, 0:58) Sebastian Lang-Lessing makes a vision of hope before more tutti thunderclaps and violins’ sighs (2:11), recalling a better time, pathos at the close of the orchestral introduction.

Anne-Marie McDermott enters solo with the third theme (2:22), bright, clear, articulate, eloquently expressing the movement’s duality of sorrow and joy: the right-hand forthright, the left’s accompaniment a smoother, comforting refrain before the right bursts into a flurry of semiquavers to challenge the orchestra returning to the first theme. McDermott enhances the hope of the returning second theme and introduces a fourth theme (3:55) of resolute opening giving way to light-hearted merriment with virtuoso passagework, delightfully balanced between the hands. The third theme now returns in happy major mode (5:55), so does the orchestral threat, yet McDermott holds her ground, and there’s a great moment of fighting tirade when she reflects p (7:49) only to ascend combatively f.

The first theme remains indomitable, a crisis offset by a cadenza. McDermott graphically presents the finest ever written, by Beethoven (11:12). The first theme opening figure is now febrile. McDermott pulls no punches, but the clamour dies with Beethoven’s tender rehabilitation of the fourth theme in baritone register (11:44), then later a ‘soprano’ version of the third theme in heroic mould (12:34) before going into cadenza overdrive, yet still recalling the opening notes of the fourth and third themes in transitioning to the coda. Lang-Lessing takes great care with this, so the power of the threat and sorrow that heroic response leaves remain vivid.

I compare Jeremy Denk, recording live the same coupling in 2018 as piano-conductor with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (Nonesuch 7559 791687). Timing the first movement at 13:40 to McDermott’s 14:37, Denk shows more flair in projection yet less range of sensitivity. His introduction’s second theme is less hopeful; his introduction’s close displays inured acceptance rather than pathos. Denk’s passagework after the piano’s third theme is exciting, but his continually added ornamentation in repeated phrases, such as his ostentatious run-up to the second sequential repeat of his first playing of the second theme, irritates me where McDermott is more effectively quietly insistent (3:41).

Denk’s cadenza, unidentified, is an ingenious melange of themes and variants, featuring in turn the third, the second with the second part of the first theme, the third again mixed with the fourth. Less integrated and flowing than Beethoven’s, its vehemence fits well in context. The crisply despatched coda misses Lang-Lessing’s melancholy.

The second movement Romance from McDermott/Lang-Lessing is arrestingly B-flat major sunny and you realize what an active partner the orchestra is, extending the piano’s solo rondo theme opening. In the first episode (tr. 5, 1:48) the piano’s aria is gently and lyrically fashioned by McDermott, allowing scope for more contrast in the G minor second episode (3:54) with the shock of its loud orchestral chords and keening flute with first oboe and bassoon also in high tessitura. You feel the magic moment of resolution through the high D-flat from the flute (4:37). The coda (7:58) achieves serenity in grandeur then softness.

Denk is cheekily jaunty in his rondo theme presentation which allows contrast in a more reflective first episode, somewhat undermined by continuing added ornamentation in repeats. His second episode shocks in its steel and terror, fine balance between the pianist’s hands, but the key flute and woodwind parts are clearer from Lang-Lessing.

The rondo theme opening the finale comes very fiery: Allegro assai indeed from McDermott’s piano and Lang-Lessing’s orchestra in turn. The first episode (tr. 6, 0:57), a précis of the rondo theme’s key elements, finds McDermott cooler, more reflective, but its projection stays edgy, sweeping seamlessly back to the rondo theme and second episode (1:23), opening with the sustained gaze of two semibreves before launching into dashing quavers’ hectic pulse, the piano going into the major. Cue the third episode (2:04) and woodwind scampering in carefree joy. McDermott soon reprises the fire of the rondo theme before chameleon-like bubbling along with the quavers of the second and third episodes. Beethoven’s cadenza starts playful and toys with the first episode in the left hand, immediately rebuffed by a variant of the rondo theme rising in the right, culminating in a carillon-like avalanche of trills in the right hand while the left tries to reassert the rondo theme, demonic stuff McDermott presents with all guns blazing before the skipping coda effects an emphatic D major close, atmosphere gritty and outcome uncertain until the final moments.

Denk takes 6:56 against McDermott/Lang-Lessing’s 8:02, largely through a shorter cadenza (0:30 versus Beethoven’s 1:29). Denk opens frantically, but too breathless to incorporate McDermott/Lang-Lessing’s ferocity. Denk makes the first episode a nonchalant contrast, gliding readily into the second, while in the third his orchestra’s lightness lets Denk be merrier. His cadenza, briefly sketching the third episode and rondo theme, begins thunderous and ends sprucely triumphant.

Best of Concerto No 25 is for me its first movement. Lang-Lessing emphasises Allegro more than maestoso. Come the motif in the first violins, the nub of the first theme (tr. 1, 0:32), chromatic rises in the cellos and basses, well-marked, render the atmosphere spiky and urgent, anticipating the quieter C minor second theme (1:30). Force is admired, justified by the resulting suave, easy lifestyle in the violins (2:06), then piano’s first entry (2:46), McDermott nimbly elaborating, before defusing the orchestra’s military persistence with a third, playfully pastoral theme (4:28) of falling ease and fourth one of optimistic rising (5:09). The cadenza McDermott plays, written for this recording by Chris Rogerson, starts with a grand reminiscence of the introduction, an acrobatic one of the key motif, late-on quietening to refer to the fourth and then third theme. It’s discursive, colourful and well suited.

Michael Greenhalgh

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