Richard Kraus
MusicWeb International
February 2017

You might enjoy this welcome new recording just for the urbane rising theme that dominates the opening Allegro in Piano Concerto No 1 in F. This insistent melody expresses yearning through a language of classical self-assurance. It is also a very powerful earworm, leaving a taste of Kozeluch lingering at unexpected moments days after playing this disc. A songful Adagio is almost as arresting. The final rondo sounds as if the musicians had just returned from the hunt; its 6/8 tune turns into a dance.

Kozeluch was one among the great emigration of Czech musicians who staffed the musical households of the Hapsburg empire. In Vienna, he was an important member of the circle that included Mozart, his colleague and rival. He wrote these concertos for his own use, much like Mozart. Some twenty-two survive to our times. These three are in major keys, open and optimistic. Kozeluch’s music is mellifluous and sophisticated. It is gentle, but in a knowing way, without extra sweetness. Musical Vienna in the 1780s was a place of incredible sophistication, which Mozart and Haydn shared with many less celebrated masters.

The orchestration tells you that this is not Mozart. Kozeluch’s strings are joined only by oboes and horns, instead of the more opulent array of winds which make the mature Mozart Piano Concertos so distinctive. The London Mozart Players play beautifully, under Shelley’s direction.

Piano Concerto No 6 in C is equally warm, if perhaps a bit more ceremonious. A gentle but insouciant andante may be the highlight of the piece. Piano Concerto No 5 in E flat opens somewhat more heroically. One can imagine making somewhat more of this, but Shelley is more interested in tonal beauty than heroism. Shelley’s playing is liquid and flowing, perhaps akin of Christian Zacharias in his Mozart concerto series.

There is another recording of Kozeluch piano concertos (1, 4, and 5). Pianist Tomas Dratva is accompanied by the Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Oliver von Dohnanyi (Oehms OC588). Dratva’s version is spikier, with more tension. It provides considerable pleasure, but is outclassed by the Hyperion recording, if only because of a somewhat klanky piano sound.

This is a good season for Kozeluch, whose music is being recorded in some outstanding performances. In addition to Shelley’s piano concertos, one must acknowledge the Kemp English’s wonderful series of Kozeluch piano sonatas on Grand Piano, now up to volume 7.

Praise to Howard Shelley’s broad musical curiosity for pursuing this little-known music. Hyperion’s production is outstanding, including Richard Wigmore’s informative notes.