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Hyperion Records

APR5640 - Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos 24 & 25

Recording details: April 2009
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: January 2010
Total duration: 76 minutes 12 seconds

Piano Concertos Nos 24 & 25
Allegro  [11'25]  recorded 19 April 2009
Cadenza (Godowsky)  [3'12]  recorded 19 April 2009
Larghetto  [7'43]  recorded 19 April 2009
Allegretto  [9'15]  recorded 19 April 2009
Rondo in A major K386  [8'55]  recorded 19 April 2009
Allegro maestoso  [16'06]  recorded 19 April 2009
Andante  [6'22]  recorded 19 April 2009
Allegretto  [9'40]  recorded 19 April 2009
Cadenza (Hummel)  [3'34]  recorded 19 April 2009

This is a recording from Appian Publications & Recordings Ltd (to quote the full title)—the label invariably more familiarly known simply as "APR".

Since its foundation in 1986, APR has won an enviable reputation as a quality label devoted predominantly—though not exclusively—to historic piano recordings. In particular APR has won countless laurels for the high standard of its 78rpm restoration work—"Transfers of genius" to quote one critic—as well as the detail and content of its booklets.

When Mozart departed the service of the hated Archbishop of Salzburg in 1781, helped by history’s most famous kick up the backside, he was confident that fame and fortune in Vienna were his for the taking. For the next few years he was triumphantly vindicated in what he dubbed ‘the land of the clavier’, earning a handsome living both from teaching, publishing his works and giving concerts. Though Mozart spent almost as fast as he earned, he was, for a time at least, a shrewd business operator, and he promoted himself as both performer and composer in the series of piano concertos he premiered at his own subscription concerts, held during Lent and Advent and attended by the cream of the Viennese musical elite.

With the six concertos of 1784, Mozart consolidated his concerto ideal, creating a unique amalgam of virtuoso display, symphonic organization, operatic characterization and – above all in the miraculous woodwind writing – chamber-musical refinement. In most of the concertos that followed over the next two years, especially the two dramatic minor-mode works, K466 in D minor and K491 in C minor, Mozart moved even further from the concerto’s sociable, galant origins. He entered the C minor in his thematic catalogue on 24 March 1786, as he was putting the finishing touches to Figaro, and almost certainly performed it at his benefit concert in Vienna’s Burgtheater on 7 April. There are no reports of the concert, though we can guess that many in the audience were bewildered at the emotional and intel­lec­tual complexity of the first movement. Mozart was already being dubbed a ‘difficult’ composer in some circles. Here was just the kind of music to enhance such a reputation. Not surprisingly, though, the C minor concerto, like the D minor, was a favourite of the Romantics, at a time when most of Mozart’s music was either patronized for its supposed Dresden-china prettiness or nostalgically idealized as the emblem of a lost Eden.

Much of the powerfully symphonic first movement, unusually in 3/4 time, is dominated by the stark, angular unison opening theme, outlining a series of dissonant intervals. The whole orchestral introduction, clinging to C minor, is sombre and chromatically troubled. When the piano enters, it is with a new plaintive theme of ‘speaking’ eloquence, half-aria, half-recitative, which remains the soloist’s unique province throughout the movement. Offsetting the C minor darkness are two lulling themes in E flat major shared between soloist and woodwind (flute, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns – the largest complement in any Mozart concerto), sometimes in sensuous, serenade textures that look forward to Così fan tutte. With ironic pathos, the major-keyed themes return in the minor in the recapitu­lation, which reorders and compresses the material in the introduction and solo exposi­tion. Compression here is balanced by the extended coda, after the cadenza, where the piano re-enters unexpectedly with shadowy arpeggios against a fragment of the main theme in oboes and bassoons – an idea that Beethoven adapted in his own concerto (No 3) in the same key.

As in the D minor concerto, Mozart follows an impassioned opening Allegro with a Romanza-style movement of faux-naïf simplicity and grace. The solemn refrain looks ahead to his final piano concerto, K595, and parts of Die Zauberflöte. Contrast comes from two woodwind-dominated episodes. The first, in C minor, distantly echoes the tensions of the first movement, while the second, in a dulcet A flat with clarinets taking the lead, again prefigures Così fan tutte.

The finale, based on a stern, symmetrical theme of leashed power, is Mozart’s greatest set of variations. The mounting tension is temporarily relieved by two wind-dominated variations (No 4 in A flat and No 6 in C) in the major key, which depart so radically from the theme that they sound more like episodes than variations. Between them comes an intensely poignant C minor variation that dissolves the theme’s outlines in chromatic polyphony. Unlike in the D minor concerto (and Beethoven’s No 3), there is no ‘happy ending’. The coda remains grimly in C minor throughout, developing and intensifying the theme’s dissonant semitones. Beethoven allegedly remarked of this coda to his fellow-composer Johann Baptist Cramer: ‘Such an idea will never occur to the likes of us.’

From analysis of paper-types used by the composer, Mozart scholar Alan Tyson has deduced that the C major Concerto K503 was begun in the winter of 1784/5 and then abandoned as a fragment for two years. Mozart entered the concerto in his thematic catalogue on 4 December 1786, and may have played it at a planned subscription concert at Trattner’s Casino the following day, though there is no documentary evidence that the concert took place. With his popularity as a composer-virtuoso in Vienna on the wane (K503 was the last concerto he wrote for his own subscription concerts), Mozart was now seeking to broaden his horizons. A proposed journey to England never materialized. But he did make a triumphant visit to Prague in January 1787, where he may (that word again) have performed K503 in the same concert as the ‘Prague’ Symphony, K504. It could also have been ‘the brilliant, glorious C major concerto’ (as described by the correspondent of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung) that Mozart played, from the sketchiest of piano parts, in a concert in the Leipzig Gewandhaus in May 1789.

Commentators have rarely been able to resist the epithet ‘Olympian’ in connection with K503. In the traditionally regal key of C major, it is indeed Mozart’s grandest, weightiest and most spaciously conceived concerto, a counterpart to the ‘Prague’ and ‘Jupiter’ symphonies. The themes announced in the orchestral introduction are deliberately plain, designed, à la Beethoven, primarily for argu­ment and development. Mozart unifies them rhythmically by an upbeat figure of three repeated quavers, and harmonically by repeated shifts between major and minor that lend the music a faint undercurrent of melan­choly. As if overawed by the majestic intro­duction, the piano has to be gently cajoled into action. When it takes over the main theme, it transforms its assertiveness into something more delicate and reflective. From here onwards, the movement mingles C major ceremony, virtuosity, lyricism (in the soloist’s two personal themes) and powerful symphonic argument. In the central development Mozart concentrates obsessively on a march theme not heard since the introduction, working it in ever closer dialogue between piano and orchestra, and finally in a quadruple, eight-part canon – a dazzling feat of contrapuntal skill worthy of the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony.

The F major Andante has a similar breadth and nobility of conception. Like many of Mozart’s slow movements, this is in essence a richly ornamented opera seria aria recast in instrumental terms, with an intimate collusion between the keyboard-as-prima-donna, freed from the limitations of the human voice, and the woodwind complement of flute, oboes and bassoons. Mozart filched the main theme of the finale, a sonata rondo on an aptly spacious scale, from a tripping gavotte in the ballet music he had written for Idomeneo six years earlier. As in the first movement, there are frequent oscillations between major and minor, together with the long pedal points that contribute so much to the massiveness of the whole concerto. The central episode opens with an agitated theme in A minor and then melts to F major for a yearning piano–oboe duet: a passage of romantic eloquence that contrasts tellingly with the prevailing brilliance and high spirits.

The delightful Rondo K386 has a rather tortuous history. Scholars long assumed that it started life as the finale of Mozart’s ‘little’ A major concerto, K414 – one of a group of three composed in the winter of 1782/3 – and was discarded because its graceful, wistful lyricism, and even certain turns of phrase, made it too similar to the first movement. After Mozart’s death, the pages containing the last 45 bars went missing; then in the mid-nineteenth century, what survived of the autograph was purchased by the English composer William Sterndale Bennett, who proceeded to split it into fragments as gifts for his friends! Inevitably, several of these frag­ments were lost. Luckily, before the dispersal of this manuscript, Cipriani Potter had published a solo piano edition with his own conjectural completion of the piece. This, together with the existing manuscript fragments as they were rediscovered, was used as a basis for assorted attempts to reconstruct the original. Finally, the missing 45 bars of the manuscript, which include a cue for a cadenza, were discovered by Alan Tyson in the British Library in 1980. From his study of the paper used, Tyson concluded that the Rondo was probably conceived not as the finale of K414 but as an independent piece, written in 1782 to capitalize on the popular success of Mozart’s recent D major Rondo, K382. Two other points reinforce his claims: no other Mozart concerto finale opens with such a long orchestral introduction; and though the instrumentation (oboes, horns and strings) is identical to that of K414, the cellos have an elaborate, highly expressive line largely independent of the basses, a feature found nowhere in K414 or, indeed, its companion concertos, K413 and K415. This recording uses Tyson’s edition, with missing passages recon­structed by Charles Mackerras.

Richard Wigmore © 2009

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