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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Piano Concertos Nos 24 & 27

Alessio Bax (piano), Southbank Sinfonia, Simon Over (conductor)
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Recording details: June 2012
St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Anna Barry
Engineered by Mike Hatch & Brett Cox
Release date: January 2013
Total duration: 82 minutes 33 seconds

Cover artwork: Photograph of Alessio Bax by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
 

Italian-born Alessio Bax is a first-prize winner at the Leeds and Hamamatsu international piano competitions and a 2009 Avery Fisher Career Grant recipient. Here he is the stunning soloist in Mozart's Piano Concertos K491 and K595; Simon Over conducts a vibrant Southbank Sinfonia.

The download includes as a bonus the variations based on the famous theme from Mozart's own Clarinet Quintet (NB: the studio master bonus tracks are 24-bit 44.1 kHz).

Reviews

'A bright radiance surrounds the outer movements, the first purposeful, the last almost a joyous 'hunting' finale, while the Larghetto, yearning in mood, finds Bax occasionally decorating his line' (Gramophone)» More

'Alessio Bax is joined by the Southbank Sinfonia in dynamic performances of Mozart's Piano Concertos No 24 and 27. The Italian-born pianist reaffirms his prize-winning credentials in a recording that comes highly recommended' (The Northern Echo)

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The Mozart narrative’s essential points are well known. Anyone familiar with the Peter Shaffer play-cum-Miloš Forman film Amadeus can provide a thumbnail sketch: the Salzburg-born wunderkind who spent his childhood touring Europe with his proud taskmaster father, Leopold; the foul-mouthed savant whose scatological sense of humor belied the sublimity of his musical imagination; ‘Amadeus’, God’s beloved, whose perfect compositional technique seemingly involved little more than taking divine dictation. Equally important are his vacillating reception among the fickle Viennese public—rock stardom in the mid-1780s, then popular decline and financial hardship (not helped by the composer’s extravagant tastes, but which, happily for us, encouraged the prolificacy of his final years)—and his untimely death at 35 (from rheumatic fever; not, as Hollywood might prefer, Salieri’s poisonous envy).

But central to our understanding of who Mozart was is our understanding of his music. Mozart has captured the imagination of listeners, musicians, and scholars for more than two centuries as a paragon of the Classical style. We value his music as the quintessence of balance, symmetry, clarity of expression. It follows naturally that his brand of genius should be equally transcendent. We marvel at his pristine manuscripts, over which Shaffer’s astonished Salieri exclaims: 'But they showed no corrections of any kind. Not one. He had simply written down music already finished in his head.' We think of the firebrand Beethoven taking Vienna by storm in Mozart’s wake, heralding the Romantic era with such viscerally human statements as the sea-parting Fifth Symphony. Beethoven, the vest-pocket narrative goes, wrote music of the earth; Mozart, of the heavens.

What, then, to make of the Piano Concerto No 24 in C minor, K491? This stirring concerto, composed in March 1786, at the height of Mozart’s celebrity, does much to confirm, but more to confute, our mythic perceptions of Mozart. His legendary genius is in full evidence. But it is manifested in more traditionally 'Beethovenian' than 'Mozartian' fashion: starting with C minor, the key of Beethoven’s darkest, stormiest nights. The volatile first theme defies the notion of Mozart’s Classical purity. The 18th-century idea of balance—symmetrical four-bar phrases—is cast aside. The theme, uttered first in a menacing whisper, then by the orchestra at full strength, is an angular sequence of four measures, two, three, and four (the last four-bar phrase overlapping with the forte restatement). Disjunct leaps of sixths and sevenths puncture the melodic contour; the theme’s stark chromaticism shades its demonic character.

This tempestuous Allegro has inspired speculation that a public execution known to have taken place within view of Mozart’s studio two weeks before the work’s completion may have darkened the composer’s mood. As scholarship, it’s a stretch (Mozart’s simultaneous writing of the bucolic A major Concerto, K488, discredits such an explanation), but a telling assessment nonetheless of the C minor Concerto’s disturbing character.

It is worth pausing to note the significance of the piano concerto to Mozart’s oeuvre and Mozart’s reciprocal importance to its literature. Establishing himself in Vienna as history’s first freelance composer, Mozart played the dual roles of artist and impresario to great success between 1784 and 1786. He frequently presented concerts unveiling his latest compositions: typically a symphony, a chamber work, perhaps a keyboard improvisation, and a piano concerto. Mozart composed twelve of his 27 piano concerti (from K449 to K503) for these concerts. Expressly designed to showcase himself as both composer and virtuoso, these works crystallized the piano concerto medium: the piano writing is in equal measures logically expressive and brilliantly virtuosic; the dynamic between soloist and orchestra is pitch-perfect. Writing for The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Cliff Eisen and Stanley Sadie identify the dozen concerti written in these three years as 'unquestionably the most important works of their kind'. Indeed, the C minor Concerto demonstrates exceptionally refined craftsmanship in balance with its Romantic ferocity. At the first tutti entrance, we encounter the most imposing orchestra among any of Mozart’s concerti: scored for flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two trumpets, two horns, timpani, and strings, the C minor is Mozart’s only concerto to use pairs of oboes, clarinets, and trumpets all at once (and is one of only two concerti Mozart would ever pen in a minor key). It moreover displays a richness of orchestration typically associated with composers a century later, providing a powerful dramatic setting for the pianist/protagonist.

Consider Mozart’s deployment of the orchestra following the piano’s first entrance. The warmth of the strings cushions the piano’s serene modulation to E flat major. The winds echo the piano’s E flat melody, as mellifluous as the first theme is angular, in pastoral hues. Throughout the concerto, Mozart assigns dialogue of chief sophistication to the winds, relying on the strings primarily for texture and dramatic thrust.

The piano develops each thematic idea, guiding the listener through an endlessly scenic landscape. Indeed, the movement’s thematic multiplicity, always organically wrought, is one of its most impressive characteristics. When the flute recalls the opening theme (in E flat minor), it seems a troubled but fleeting memory amidst an otherwise peaceful (E flat major) reverie. Such moments invest this movement with a startling psychological complexity. Mozart closes the movement, impeccably, not with a bang, but a sinister whisper.

The Larghetto is a study in that brand of Mozartian simplicity that, by and large, disappears from music after the 18th century. Of another transcendent Mozart slow movement—that of the Clarinet Quintet—the peerless music critic Michael Steinberg once observed: 'You listen to the first phrase … and there’s nothing there. It’s so obvious, you wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself. Those marvels are very special, and no one commands that corner of music quite like Mozart.'

The C minor Concerto’s Larghetto inspires the same wonder. Mozart biographer Maynard Solomon identifies this Larghetto among the quintessentially Mozartian slow movements, in which 'a calm, contemplative, or ecstatic condition gives way to a troubled state—is penetrated by hints of storm, dissonance, anguish, anxiety, danger—and this in turn is succeeded by a restoration of the status quo ante, now suffused with and transformed by the memory of the turbulent interlude.' Pointing specifically to the slow movements of the two concerti on this album (as well as that of the C major Concerto, K467), Solomon notes that Mozart 'tries to summon up every gradation of emotion—from terror to vague feelings of unease, from unbearably intense pleasures bordering on ecstasy to a floating placidity and contentment.'

The gradations of emotion emerge here courtesy of two extended interludes, featuring, as in the first movement, wind writing of striking originality. Mozart subtly but unmistakably distinguishes these interludes in color by omitting the clarinets in the first, the oboes in the second.

This sleight of orchestration recurs in the finale, a fiendishly imaginative set of eight variations. The theme is given over to understated, almost erotic, piquancy. The winds drive two major-key variations: the fourth, in E flat major, without flute and oboe; the sixth, in G major, sans clarinet and horn. Around these, Mozart puts the theme through paces in turns martial and mysterious, before concluding the concerto at a devilish 6/8 gallop.

What the C minor Concerto offers in Sturm und Drang, the Piano Concerto No 27 in B flat major, K595 equals in featherweight luminosity. The B flat is Mozart’s final piano concerto, dated 5 January 1791—within a year of his death—in his Verzeichnüss aller meiner Werke (Catalogue of all my works). Mozart gave the premiere himself in March of that year, in what would be his final concert performance. Though his star had faded considerably by this time among Viennese audiences, the Wiener Zeitung nevertheless reported that 'everyone admired his art, in composition as well as performance'.

Scholars grasping for intimations of Mozart’s mortality will be disappointed. Never mind that the Concerto’s genesis likely dates back to 1788. The music itself dispels the narrative. True, it is painted in muted colors. The key of B flat builds in a degree of restraint, relying considerably less on the natural resonance of the string instruments (whose open strings—C, G, D, A, E—make them especially sympathetic to those keys). The score calls for flute, oboes, bassoons, horns, and strings—forgoing considerable thunder from the C minor Concerto’s forces in omitting clarinets, trumpets, and timpani.

But the Concerto’s musical ideas are warm and generous more than they can be called autumnal. In contrast to the C minor’s unsettling first theme, here, the entire orchestral exposition seems to unfold in one long, miraculous breath. The soloist’s subsequent repartee with the orchestra has the intimacy of chamber music (an impression emphasized on the present recording by the use in certain passages of solo strings).

Mozart’s harmonic shenanigans in the development section are noteworthy, beginning with the piano’s statement of the theme in B minor—close in proximity to the home key of B flat, but harmonically very distant. The strings respond as if disoriented, unsure of where the piano has taken them; the oboes and bassoons discover the soloist in the equally remote key of C major.

The development proceeds in this fashion, taking the listener from one unexpected place to the next. Mozart in his late period, if we are to so preposterously call his early 30s, has apparently not forsaken his impish wit. Mozart biographer Julian Rushton rightly notes:

If we postulate a ‘late style’, it is one prone to limpid textures, free of what Mozart’s contemporaries might have condemned as learned, or ‘tough meat’; overflowing with melody; the surface serene, as if compositional difficulties no longer existed; complex passages (which do exist) seductively packaged so that ‘the ordinary listener will also find them satisfying, without knowing why’.

After the tender Larghetto, which looks ahead to the gentle lyricism of Felix Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte, the Concerto concludes with a spirited rondo. For its subject, Mozart uses the charming melody of his own Sehnsucht nach dem Frühlinge (Longing for spring), a song completed immediately after the Concerto (catalogued by Mozart on January 14; later catalogued as K596).

Now largely forgotten, the Italian composer Giuseppe Sarti (1729-1802) was a leading figure in late 18th-century opera. Mozart met Sarti on the latter’s visit to Vienna in June 1784; he wrote to his father: 'Sarti is a good honest fellow! I have played a great deal to him and have composed variations on an air of his, which pleased him exceedingly.'

The tune for Mozart’s Variations on Come un agnello, K460, comes from Sarti’s opera Fra i due litiganti il terzo gode (While two dispute, the third enjoys). The plot of the opera, composed in 1782, resembles that of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (1786), with its Romantic high jinx among aristocrats and their servants. More importantly, ‘Come un agnello’ was sufficiently well known in its day for Mozart to famously quote it again three years later in Don Giovanni: it is the second of three popular tunes played during the supper scene (followed by 'Non più andrai' from Figaro).

As evidenced by the finale to his Piano Concerto in C minor, the variations form provided a potent vehicle for Mozart’s inexhaustible imagination; this set affirms the same. Mozart transforms Sarti’s straightforward melody over eight beguiling variations into something exceedingly pleasing indeed.

Patrick Castillo 2012

Mozart’s piano concerti were the reason I fell in love with the piano. I vividly remember hearing the development section of the first movement of K467 during the closing titles of a TV mini-series on the development of the atomic bomb and how it led to the closing events of World War Two. It was heavy subject matter for an eight-year old, but what blew me away was the power of that music. I instantly decided to learn it, and even made a little version for piano trio to perform with my violinist brother and a cellist friend. For years I dreamed of making K467 the first concerto I recorded. That lasted until a couple of seasons ago, when I was asked to perform K491 and K595 with multiple orchestras. Getting to know these two concerti in depth left a mark so deep that I have moved my beloved K467 to the backburner for the time being.

K491 is an intensely powerful piece, at times dark and desperate, sweet and beautiful, and highly virtuosic in the last movement. Mozart wrote only two concerti in a minor key, and in K491 he creates an amazing emotional universe and sound world through color, instrumentation and sheer imagination. I always look forward to performing this concerto; it is an incredibly thrilling ride.

Mozart did not write specific cadenzas for K491, but many major composers and pianists have done so, usually expanding upon the darkness, grandeur and virtuosity of the piece. While cadenzas are an opportunity to showcase a performer’s keyboard skills, in the case of K491 I prefer not to interfere and disrupt the order Mozart so carefully shapes in the first movement. I have written a small cadenza based simply on the material Mozart provides, which, in my humble opinion, keeps the continuity of the pacing of the movement while shifting the focus from the orchestra to the soloist.

When I first approached K595, I knew very little about the piece, except that it had a gorgeous slow movement and a very charming Finale. I soon discovered that its apparent simplicity hid content of immense depth. This is Mozart’s last concerto, written at the end of his life, at a time when he had abandoned his career as a virtuoso performer of his own works. It is lean and almost simplistic. The notes are not the main focus, but rather subtle changes in pacing, harmony, texture, and the use of rests. Mozart provides the cadenzas for K595, as if to tell performers that any improvisations within the concerto’s beautifully balanced world could create havoc. They are, in my mind, perfect cadenzas that seem to stop time while sounding completely made up on the spot.

I thought these two contrasting concerti would make a perfect pairing for a disc. K595, with its pure melodies and revealing textures seems to be set in heaven, while K491 has its feet firmly on earth, describing humankind with all our ups and downs.

The eight Variations on ‘Come un agnello’ from Sarti’s Fra i due litiganti il terzo gode are an incredible showcase of Mozart’s creativity. He transforms and develops the theme in seemingly limitless ways in each variation and through a wealth of moods and atmospheres. The variations push the piano’s technical boundaries to new heights. From the sound control and the shaping of phrases required in the slow variations, to the double thirds, sixths, leaps and quick hand crossings in the fast ones, they are Mozart’s unabashed displays of virtuosity. At the same time, the improvisatory cadenzas and slow variations are so inspired that they make this one of the most fulfilling, if seldom performed, sets of variations in the keyboard repertoire.

All Mozart concerti, and especially K491 and K595, require an incredible partnership and complicity among the players involved. I consider Mozart’s concerti to be chamber music for a larger ensemble, and for these two in particular, the ensemble needs virtuoso instrumentalists with an innate understanding of Mozart’s idiom. The amazing Southbank Sinfonia, conducted by Simon Over, was my first choice for this disc. These are highly accomplished players, and the group has the flexibility, curiosity, energy and fearlessness to bring this music to life. It has been an honor and great fun to work with them on this project.

Alessio Bax 2012

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