I confess to not being hugely impressed by a previous volume in Angela Hewitt's series of Mozart piano concertos for Hyperion (reviewed in May 2013). Though crisply played, No 17 lacked the vitality and sense of fun that is so crucial to such a lively score, and No 27 seemed further weighed down by an over-studied approach, the finale especially failing to dance. So I was pleasantly surprised by this latest release, which, from the bright opening fanfare of No 22 through to the dark whirling finale of No 24, grabs and maintains interest with sensitive, thoughtful and stylish performances.
As with the previous release, the conductor is Hannu Lintu, this time helming the National Arts Centre Orchestra of Canada (the current Music Director is Pinchas Zukerman) rather than the Mantova Orchestra da Camera. They prove impressively alert and intuitive partners for Hewitt. Besides festive trumpets and drums, both concertos feature prominent roles for woodwind—each includes clarinets in the line-up—passages which are full of character here. Hewitt brings to bear the nuanced precision and intelligence that have made her Bach recordings so successful, alongside an appealing Mozartean zest and intimacy often missing from modern-instrument performances, and her well-chosen cadenzas—Paul Badura-Skoda for No 22 and Saint-Saëns for No 24—work well.
No 22 in E flat, K482, is one of Mozart's most joyful and substantial concertos, and its ebullience is conveyed delightfully here. The first movement dazzles with bold confidence; though plaintive, the tragic mood of the slow movement is not overdone, its woodwind serenade interludes flowing seamlessly from the lament-like main theme like the sun emerging from grey clouds. Hewitt's quicksilver light touch comes into its own in the finale, which sparkles and dances, with a gracefully buoyant minuet at its heart.
Lintu sets a dark, brooding tone for the first movement of No 24 in C minor, K491, with a keen, lithe orchestral introduction that doesn't pull its dramatic punches but avoids undue romanticization. Compared to more sumptuous-toned pianists such as Mitsuko Uchida, Hewitt's delicate style might sometimes come across as prim, but her refreshing lightness has much to recommend it. Certainly, in the first movement at least, the impact of this most turbulent of all Mozart's concertos is as strong and arguably stronger than more deliberately emotive accounts. The 'Larghetto' is sweetly played and sensitively ornamented but, despite admirable clarity and occasional glimpses of fire, the finale is a shade too polite, lacking the thrilling intensity it needs (the abruptness of the initial orchestral statement of the finale theme may come as a surprise too). As with No 22, the recording, made at the National Arts Centre, Ottawa, is rather dry, but preferable to bathroomy bloom in this repertoire, and does help create a sense of immediacy.
Of course, there are endless different approaches to such great music that can illuminate in different ways—the notion of a 'first choice' recording is absurd. Although it probably would not make a short list of the finest versions of these concertos, Hewitt's new disc offers plenty to appreciate: a worthy alternative to classic accounts from the likes of Brendel, Anda, Zacharias, Barenboim, Annie Fischer and Brautigam's ongoing period-instrument cycle for Bis.