Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sunday Classics: After producing six remarkable piano concertos in one year, Mozart was just getting warmed up

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Iván Klanský plays the slow movement ("Romanze") of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 with Jiří Bělohlávek conducting the Virtuosi di Praga, November 1990.

by Ken

This is tough, but if I had to name a single Mozart piano concerto as my favorite, with no hemming or hawing, and offering just a single answer, I might swallow hard and declare for No. 21, which as we noted in last night's preview is permanently associated with the film Elvira Madigan, thanks to its shrewd use of the gorgeous slow movement as background for the romantic idyll embedded in it, quite possibly Mozart's most beautiful slow movement, which is covering a lot of ground.

As I also mentioned last night, Mozart's piano concertos have been near the top of my to-do list since I started writing these pieces, but they make a dauntingly formidable subject. In some hard-to-define way they are among Mozart's most personal works, along with the four or maybe five supreme operatic masterpieces and the late string quintets, and as I tried to make clear in our recent quick peek at the operas, this constitutes an elite category of cultural achievement.

As I mentioned (yet again!) last night, Concerto No. 21 in C, K. 467, has the interesting circumstance of having a fraternal twin: the immediately preceding concerto, No. 20 in D minor, K. 466. (Note the consecutive Köchel numbers. The numbers don't always represent the chronology exactly, but in this case they do, and you can't get any closer than this pair!) The two works, written in something close to a single burst of inspiration, nevertheless bear hardly any resemblance to each other beyond the quality and exalted level of inspiration channeled.

Their dissimilarity is almost the point. Musical history is filled with such instances of composers of wide-ranging imagination writing pairs of pieces which are wildly dissimilar, and if you think about it, it makes sense. The creative immersion of the first-composed piece easily gives way to, or perhaps even sets in motion, a wildly different mode of inspiration. An especially vivid example: Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, his Opp. 66 and 67.

Why don't we start by hearing the first movements of the two concertos, from recordings made on the same day (April Fool's Day, to boot!) by Arthur Rubinstein and Alfred Wallenstein?

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466:
i. Allegro vivace




MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, K. 467:
i. Allegro maestoso




Arthur Rubinstein, piano; RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, Alfred Wallenstein, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded in New York, Apr. 1, 1961

It's worth noting that Mozart concertos hardly figured prominently in Rubinstein's repertory through most of his career. When he and Josef Krips -- off the triumph of their 1956 recording of the five Beethoven piano concertos -- tackled Mozart's great C minor Concerto, No. 24, in April 1958, the pianist was already 71, and the only Mozart concerto recordings I'm aware that he'd made were two mono versions of No. 23. Then in 1961, in the space of three days in March and April, he recorded four more Mozart concertos, this time with Alfred Wallenstein: in addition to Nos. 20 and 21, Nos. 17 and 23. (All five were fit onto two CDs in an indispensable volume, Vol. 61,in BMG's comprehensive Rubinstein edition.)

There were music lovers at the time who thought they had Rubinstein typed as an artist whose interpretive sympathies were incompatible with this music. They could hardly have been more wrong. As I noted last night, there was similar skepticism in much of the music world in the '60s when the Hungarian pianist Géza Anda undertook a complete recording of the Mozart piano concertos. He was thought of as a Romantic specialist (we just heard him playing some gorgeous Chopin), and there was additional astonishment at his taking on the dual role of conductor as well as soloist.

This wasn't without precedent; Edwin Fischer, notably, had made a specialty of conducting Mozart concertos from the keyboard. Still, it was hardly an everyday thing then, and I'm not aware that Anda had significant conducting experience at the time. The impulse to conduct as well as play is understandable, though, since the conductor plays such a large role in these concertos. A soloist with strong views of the music has to depend on the conductor not only to support those views but to carry them over to the purely orchestral statements.

Here's Anda playing the first movement of No. 21, from the same 1961 DG recording as the performance of the Andante, the very recording used in Elvira Madigan, we heard last night:

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, K. 467:
i. Allegro maestoso



Camerata Academica of the Salzburg Mozarteum, Géza Anda, piano and cond. DG, recorded May 1961

The twin concertos, Nos. 20 and 21, represented a stepping up of Mozart's concerto game. He had been writing piano concertos like a fiend: The six concertos from No. 14 through No. 19 (K. 449-51, 453, 456, and 459) were all composed, amazingly, in the year 1784, the year Mozart turned 28, and they're all extraordinary works. But among them only No. 17 rises above that level to the highest of which Mozart was capable, a level it seems to me he had already hit once, in the Concerto No. 9 (1777).

Nos. 9 and 17 have in common with No. 21 being among Mozart's sunniest works. In No. 20 he did something he'd literally never done before: write a concerto first movement in a minor key. (And he only did it once again, with No. 24, in C minor.) The first movement clearly dominates Mozart's concertos; by this time it has already expanded to a length typically in the 14-minute range, meaning that Beethoven didn't have all that much expanding to do when he took over the form. (Like Mozart, Beethoven wrote piano concertos above all for his own use as a performer, as long as his hearing allowed him to play publicly.)

I thought it might be interesting to go back to that last concerto of the "1784 six," No. 19, and hear the three first movements consecutively. You'll notice immediately that No. 19's is more safely conventional, for example in offering a straightforward opening theme that first the orchestra and then the soloist can state. The "principal theme" of No. 20 is hardly even a theme; it's more like a mood, or an expressive surge, and while that of No. 21 is more "melody"-like, it's still more of a structural assembly than a real tune, and note that the soloist's entry doesn't attack it directly but needs a bit of buildup.

I might add that in the right hands No. 19 can seem very close in stature to the exalted series of works, Nos. 20-24, that were to follow. By "the right hands" I mean those of Rudolf Serkin, who heard a rhythmic snap in that principal theme which I've never heard any other pianist match, and in general heard things in the piece that nobody else seems to. It's true both of his 1961 recording with George Szell and of his 1983-ish DG remake with Claudio Abbado, who proved an unexpectedly sympathetic collaborator in their extensive series of Mozart concerto recordings. In fact, it's the later Serkin recording of the first movement we're going to hear, with the first movement tightened up by a full minute.

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 19 in F, K. 459:
i. Allegro



Rudolf Serkin, piano; London Symphony Orchestra, Claudio Abbado, cond. DG, recorded c 1983

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466:
i. Allegro vivace



András Schiff, piano; Camerata Academica of the Salzburg Mozarteum, Sándor Végh, cond. Decca, recorded c1990

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, K. 467:
i. Allegro maestoso



Berlin Philharmonic, Daniel Barenboim, piano and cond. Teldec, recorded November 1986

Note that Barenboim followed the example of Edwin Fischer and Géza Anda in conducting from the keyboard. His first recorded cycle of the Mozart concertos, for EMI, was for me the first successful demonstration of his aptitude for conducting, and remains one of the best things he's done on records. I'm not sure I don't prefer it to the Teldec remake, but the Teldec performances certainly hold their own. I would recommend the boxed set,which also includes a DVD containing performances of the Two-Piano Concerto (numbered No. 10 among the piano concertos) and the Three-Piano Concerto (No. 7), maybe just behind the Anda-DG cycle.But then, I also really like the Schiff-Végh-Decca cycle,which we sample here, a lot. Oh, and the Perahia-Sony cycleis a lovely piece of work too.

(Since Barenboim self-conducted his EMI Mozart concerto cycle, two more pianists have done it on records. Murray Perahia, on Sony, is like Anda a pianist who extended himself to conducting his Mozart concertos for, I imagine, the reason I already suggested: to be able to maintain consistency of interpretive outlook in the orchestral part. Vladimir Ashkenazy, on Decca, like Barenboim was already establishing himself as a conductor by the time he began his Mozart concerto cycle.)

Second movement: Andante

We heard, I thought, an interesting range of performances of this great movement (the Elvira Madigan one) last night, from Arthur Rubinstein through Géza Anda to Daniel Barenboim. Just to keep the movement fresh in memory, here's another wonderful Hungarian pianist, Annie Fischer:


Annie Fischer, piano; Philharmonia Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch, cond. EMI, recorded c1958

Third movement: Rondo: Allegro vivace assai

The rondo was still the standard form for a concerto finale. That of Concerto No. 21 is, again, one of the happiest specimens. Here's Annie Fischer again.


Annie Fischer, piano; Philharmonia Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch, cond. EMI, recorded c1958


THE COMPLETE CONCERTO NO. 21

Sir Clifford Curzon, one of the more tightly wound of the great pianists, seems to have had rather a delicate psyche, which could adversely affect his concentration and even his technique, which under pressure could slip noticeably. He also seems to have had a talent for putting himself under pressure. When he was "on," though, he displayed a bracing mix of the bold and decisive and the poetic. He was especially known for his performances of Mozart concertos, and his record company, Decca, was inspired by his recorded successes to commission him to record all of the concertos.

This seems, though, to have caused him at least as much distress as satisfaction, perhaps because (or at least in part because) he didn't really have that many of the concertos in his repertory. He didn't make scheduling easy, and he went through a number of perfectly fine conductors, rejecting recordings that turned out, when they were finally released, to be quite fine. His likes and dislikes among the concertos certainly weren't mine. I'm not all that crazy about the last two, Nos. 26 and 27, but he seems to have loved them, whereas No. 21 seems not to have been among his favorites. It was one of the first concertos Anda recorded, and the first Barenboim did in his Teldec traversal. Curzon, by contrast, managed to die without having recorded it. Nevertheless, this live performance with Rafael Kubelik seems to me quite powerful and satisfying.

Then we hear a much-loved Mozartean, Alicia de Larrocha, who in the early '90s, now under contract to BMG, entered into a happy collaboration with Sir Colin Davis which produced recordings of 10 concertos, and also did an exceptional five-CD series encompassing the complete Mozart piano sonatas. De Larrocha is characteristically unflappable; balance and poise seemed to come naturally to her, and her Mozart consistently sings.

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, K. 467:
i. Allegro maestoso
ii. Andante
iii. Allegro vivace assai



Clifford Curzon, piano; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Kubelik, cond. Recorded live, Dec. 12, 1976


Alicia de Larrocha, piano; English Chamber Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded Feb. 9-11, 1991


THE REST OF CONCERTO NO. 20

No, I'm not going to leave you hanging, teasing you with tales of this great fraternal twin of Concerto No. 21 and then letting you hear only the opening movement. Considering their auspicious beginnings, it seems only natural to find out how the Schiff and Rubinstein performances turn out.

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466:
ii. Romanze
iii. Rondo: Allegro assai



András Schiff, piano; Camerata Academica of the Salzburg Mozarteum, Sándor Végh, cond. Decca, recorded c1990


Arthur Rubinstein, piano; RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, Alfred Wallenstein, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded in New York, Apr. 1, 1961

As I explained last night, what set in motion my whole determination to tackle Mozart concertos this week was stumbling across the CD edition of Géza Anda's later recordings of Concertos Nos. 20 and 21 for Eurodisc. I thought it might be fun to hear this 20th Concerto.

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466:
i. Allegro vivace
ii. Romanze
iii. Rondo: Allegro assai



Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Géza Anda, piano and cond. Eurodisc/RCA/BMG, recorded 1973


THE REST OF CONCERTO NO. 19

One last loose end: I'm not going to send you away with just the first movement of No. 19 either. Here's the slow movement and rondo, still played by Rudolf Serkin, but now going back to the 1961 Columbia recording with George Szell. (As noted, while the first movement lost a minute between the 1961 and 1983 recordings, the timings for the later movements are virtually identical.)

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 19 in F, K. 459:
ii. Allegretto
iii. Rondo: Allegro assai



Rudolf Serkin, piano; Columbia Symphony Orchestra, George Szell, cond. Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded in New York, Apr. 28, 1961


SUNDAY CLASSICS POSTS

The newly revised as well as updated version of the list is here.
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7 Comments:

At 6:52 PM, Anonymous robert dagg murphy said...

Ken: Bravo! Another masterful post. If I were teaching a music appreciation class I would have all my students watch and listen to your marvelous Sunday classics. It is always a highlight of my weekend. some people never get the credit they deserve although putting together these posts must be a reward in itself. I hope your work can eventually get the larger audience it deserves. Thanks again.

 
At 10:31 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks, Robert. Luckily Mozart did all the heavy lifting for me.

Ken

 
At 5:31 AM, Anonymous Bil said...

Second all that robert.

But wait, am I the ONLY ONE that is PAYING for this class???

Thanks Keni as always.

 
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