Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Light and alive; tasteful and thoughtful

The Mozart piano concertos are, along with Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, my absolute go-to music. I play them when I'm feeling low, or when I'm especially happy. Or when I'm feeling somewhere in between; you get the picture! Few cycles have given me as much pleasure as the one which is only now coming to a close. It began in November 2010, when BIS recorded fortepianist Ronald Brautigam and Die Kölner Akademie conducted by Michael Alexander Willens in their first disc of the series. The series was front-loaded, with the best concertos already recorded by the end of last year. This penultimate disc, released this week, and the final disc which I presume will come this fall, are bound to be a trifle anti-climactic. But early Mozart has its charms, and this repertoire has an extra interest I'll get to in a moment. This isn't profound music, but it has a very real, if slightly superficial, appeal.

The numbering of the piano concertos is a bit complicated. The two- and three-piano concertos are included in the standard list of 27, and numbers 1-4 are actually arrangements by Mozart of contemporary piano sonatas by other composers. Those four, by the way, will be included in the final disc in the BIS series. The current disc thus includes the first piano concerto Mozart actually wrote, number 5, K. 175. It's a marvellous trumpets-and-drums romp with a flashy solo part Mozart wrote for himself. One of the things that impresses me the most about this work is its effortless distillation of opera buffa into a concert work. Comedy, they say, is hard, but for a 17-year-old to make such a comic soufflé without it collapsing: astounding!

Of course Brautigam and Willens and the Cologne musicians have their part to play in keeping things so light and alive. They shine as well in the sixth concerto, K.238, which is much less flashy and a trifle more erudite. This is a tasteful and thoughtful performance of a work which begins to show the more serious side of Mozart's music.

Finally we come to three intriguing pasticcios, as they were termed, arrangements of three solo sonatas by a close musical mentor of Mozart's in London, Johann Christian Bach. These are not the arrangements I mentioned before, and they have no official numbers in the series of 27, but their Köchel number of 107 gives an idea of where they fit in Mozart's catalogue. They have considerable charm, and it's worth listening to both the originals and Mozart's arrangements.  Back in 2007 Hanssler Classic released a disc with pianist Gerrit Zitterbart that combined the three concertos and sonatas, making it easy to compare the music. Brautigam easily out-classes Zitterbart, by the way, though I regret the loss of the "Scotch snap" in his version of the Theme and Variations second movement of the G major concerto. I've always loved hearing that Hibernian lilt in English music of the 18th century.

One of the things I discovered when I listened carefully to the J.C. Bach sonatas was the high quality of this source material. These are important works, just below the level of Haydn, and deserving careful attention from pianists and listeners. It's no wonder Mozart wanted to rework this music to make an impression with connoisseurs. I recommend both Sophie Yates on Chandos and Rachel Heard in a new Naxos CD in this repertoire (Mozart arranged number 2, 3, and 4 of Bach's six sonatas). Here's Heard with the Scotch snap!

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