Mozart and Yellow Warblers: Recent Performances of the Piano Concertos on Disc (Part I of a Series)

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Recorded Performances of Leif Ove Andsnes, Jonathan Biss, Derek Han, Vassily Primakov, Rudolf Buchbinder, David Fray and Emanuel Ax.
(Leif Ove Andsnes, Mozart Concertos Nos. 9 and18; Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, EMI)
(Jonathan Biss, Mozart Concertos Nos. 21 and 22; Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, EMI)
(Derek Han, Mozart Complete Concertos; Paul Freeman, Philharmonia Orchestra, Brilliant Classics)
(Vassily Primakov, Mozart Piano Concertos, Vol. 1: Nos. 24-27; Scott Yoo, Odense Symphony Orchestra)
(Rudolf Buchbinder, Mozart Piano Concertos Nos. 22-24; Wiener Philharmoniker, DVD, EuroArts)
(David Fray, “David Fray Records Mozart,” Concertos Nos. 22 and 25; Jaap van Zweden, Philharmonia Orchestra, film directed by Bruno Monsaingeon, DVD,Virgin Classics)
(Emanuel Ax, Mozart Piano Concertos Nos. 17 and 18; Pinchas Zukerman, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, RCA Victrola)

Companion analyses:
Rosen, Charles. The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. New York:W.W. Norton & Company, 1970, 1998.
Girdlestone, Cuthbert. Mozart and His Piano Concertos. New York:Dover Publications, 1964.

Part 1: Leif Ove Andsnes, Derek Han and Emanuel Ax

Not so recent Emanuel Ax, Photo by Jenny Baumann

While spending almost twenty years closely listening to Bach’s more than two hundred cantatas bewildered some of my friends would decry my project and say, “They all sound alike – how can you tell them apart?” These people, sophisticated music lovers who simply did not care for the Bach vocal repertory, refused to admit they glossed over these works in a superficial way.  To my ears, of course, each and every cantata had uniqueness that clearly articulated it from the rest of the pack. Yes, there were many structural similarities, and Bach’s musical language is the unifying tongue, but, to say Bach’s cantatas all sounded alike seemed heretical, born of inferior taste and auditory skills.  Years later, when I started watching birds, I came upon the family of yellow warblers, illustrated in Roger Tory Peterson’s definitive field guide.  Boggled by the subtle markings which distinguish these birds, it seemed that page after page pictured the same damned bird, and I recalled my friends’  remarks about Bach’s vocal works.  The thirty-odd subspecies of yellow warblers, all tiny creatures with a mix of yellow, white and dark streaks, seemed like a pattern puzzle on an I.Q. test:  “Which bird doesn’t belong with the rest?” or “What will the next bird in the sequence look like?”  I passed over the warblers and contented myself to distinguish a black crow from a blue heron.

Leif Ove Andsnes

Yet, when I studied music in college, and inevitably encountered Mozart’s piano concertos, I recall that while I found many beautiful things about this one or that, and certainly recognized that the two minor key concertos (Nos. 20 and 24) were uniquely dramatic, I confess that my first impressions never compelled me to seek out the individuality of each of these extraordinary works.  Perhaps others feel this way but are so captivated by Mozart’s inevitable charm, graceful triadic melodies, scintillating passagework and flowery cadences, that not being able to definitively identify the excerpt at hand, is of no great importance.  Having been used to Bach’s quicker and denser harmonic rhythm, and loving the chromaticism in the Late and Post Romantics, Mozart’s refined and selective harmonic palette, sometimes, challenged aural discrimination.

With the help of Charles Rosen’s great The Classical Style, a book to force oneself to read as it is the Rosetta Stone to fully understanding Mozart, the concertos reveal themselves as succulencies pried open, eager to be feasted upon by the more enlightened concertante gourmand. The technical analyses in Rosen’s work should be tempered with ample servings from Cuthbert Girdlestone’s delightful and sometimes florid prose in his classic book, Mozart and His Piano Concertos. Pointing out Girdlestone’s excesses doesn’t detract from his many valuable insights. The combination of Rosen’s structural positivism and Girdlestone’s enthusiastic breadth of advocacy, make wonderful companions for listening to the concertos from first to last.  While it is not absolutely necessary to master how “sonata allegro” form operates to discover the beauties in these concertos, being able to perceive Mozart’s alchemy of formal architecture and discussion is well worth the effort of a close reading.

Derek Han

Now that we have the right tools for informed listening and appreciation, we confront the task of selecting performances.  I have many of the classic ones on LP:  Hess, Gieseking, Haebler, Schnabel, Casadesus, Serkin, Michelangeli and Brendel.  I chose not to revivify any of these for my current project, primarily because I wanted some fresh perspectives and clearer recorded sound.  I have heard my share of interpretations by the great Mozart specialists of recent times, Mitsuko Uchida and Murray Periaha, but do not own either of their integral sets.   I recognize both of these performers as geniuses, but opted for pianists whose profiles only occasionally appear on the Mozart performance horizon (with the exception of Rudolf Buchbinder, a noted specialist of the period). For a complete twenty-seven concerto reading, I selected the ones on Brilliant Classics with Derek Han and Paul Freeman simply because I have at hand, and neither performer’s work is as well-known as it should be.

One day, while listening to Sirius Radio in my car, I heard the finale movement of K.456 (No. 18 in B-flat) performed by Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. It struck me as the most sparkling performance of any Mozart concerto I have heard.  This movement can be enjoyed on YouTube here,  I ordered the disk within an hour after I parked my car. K.456 is given a somewhat cursory treatment in Rosen, but it is the sort of piece that worms its way in your ear, if not your heart.  Girdlestone’s commentary, on the other hand, illuminates what is truly amazing about this concerto. One must conclude that this concerto shares a fascinating affinity with Bach’s Canonic Variations (S.769), and, even more surprisingly, with Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. In each work, the form of the whole is replicated, in miniature, in the final section.  Götterdämmerung is a three act opera with a prologue; the prologue, opening with the Norns — paralleling the three Rhinemaidens in Das Rheingold — offers a retelling of all that goes before and a prophesy of what will be.  Wagner replicates the Ring’s four-opera design (Das Rheingold being a prologue to a trilogy), in the final opera of the set.  Bach’s final variation of the Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, as well, demonstrates, in miniature, the exact canonic structure of the the complete set. In Mozart’s K.456, we hear a lofty and almost pristine opening movement, followed by an impassioned set of variations in the relative minor.  The contrast, according to Girdlestone, seems to be that of the formally classic, with that of the emotionally untethered.  I would add that the two reflect Nietzsche’s duality of the Apollonian and Dionysian in art.  However, the third movement, the charmer which first turned me on to this work, is a sonata-rondo in which blissfully non-committed couplets surround an unexpectedly passionate development in, what Rosen calls, an “exotically” distant minor key.  Thus, this innocent and cheerful rondo reflexively reveals the entire concerto’s design.

Andsnes’s recording, which has so much spontaneity about it, is only one of an intended Mozart cycle.  The Norwegian pianist confides, in another video clip, that he is latecomer to the Mozart concertos. Brimming with newfound enthusiasm and a background in the Romantic Scandinavian tradition, his approach to Mozart is less pensive and introspective than, say, Emanuel Ax’s 1985 reading of the same work.  Derek Han’s performance strikes a good middle ground between the two weights.  Emanuel Ax has a unique approach to Mozart’s concertos, which is evident both in this older recording and in a recent live performance of K.482 which I reviewed this summer, a performance I will discuss in another installment.  Ax eschews quick tempi and short phrases in favor of more structural poise and fluidity of melodic line. The contrast to Andsnes is widest in the G-minor Andante, a set of variations in which chromaticism and rhythmic elasticity darken and attenuate the melancholy theme. Ax’s approach emphasizes the pre-classical Empfindsamer (“sensitive”) roots of this movement.  However, Andsnes delivers a rollicking finale, bursting with good spirits, that is more fitting than its more studied, prosaic counterpoint in Ax’s recording.

I have deliberately excluded mention of the companion concerto in the Andsnes disc:  the No. 9 in E-flat major, K.271, the so called “Jeunhomme.”  Rosen spends a chunk of his book discussing this concerto, extolling it as Mozart’s first great masterpiece. Rosen would undoubtedly favor K.271 over K.456, but each has its own riches.  Andsnes, again, provides great energy and thrust to this music, lending it a lightness that is very appealing. Brendel’s reading is greater, but Andsnes’s is infectious.  Using modern instruments, the  Norwegian Chamber Orchestra performs in an historically informed way, giving the listener a very “period” sound.  Andsnes, at times, fills in as “continuo” in the tutti passages, which is entirely in keeping with historical practice.

In the next installment, several newish recordings of K.482 (No. 22 in E-flat major) will be sighted through my field glasses…

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