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Mozart: Piano concertos K503 & K595

Robert Levin fortepiano, Louise Alder soprano, Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Richard Egarr
66:39
AAM AAM045

This is a significant issue which finally brings to a close a series that was started thirty years ago but was brought to a halt after the AAM’s contract with Universal (Decca) ended. In 2023 the series was resumed on the AAM’s own label, the five CDs needed to complete the series now issued and reviewed by EMR. It is perhaps a piece of serendipity that this final CD is to my mind the most satisfying of the series since its resumption. I think there are three definable reasons: firstly, the restricted sound quality of several of the previous discs has concerned me. Here the venue is for the first time St John’s Smith Square and for whatever reason the quality is more open and spacious than other recent discs; also the fortepiano Robert Levin uses here is a beautifully-toned copy of a Viennese Anton Walter instrument of 1795 by Chris Maene of Ruiselede, Belgium. Warmly and roundly characterful across its range, it responds to Robert Levin’s fluent passage work to often mesmerizing effect. Finally, former AAM director Richard Egarr’s lively, positive direction seems to me a step up from that on other recent recordings in the series.  

A further reason to celebrate this issue is of course that the CD includes not only two of Mozart’s greatest piano concertos but also one of his finest concert arias. The scena consists of an accompanied recitative and aria, Ch’io mi scordi di te? … Non temer amato ben, K505, the reason it is included here being that it includes an elaborate concertante part for keyboard. It was written for Nancy Storace, his first Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro, on the occasion of her final concert in Vienna in 1786. Mozart’s catalogue of works records that it was written for ‘Mlle Storace and me’, underlining suspicions that the relationship may have been more than simply a professional one.  More importantly, it is sung with affectionate warmth by Louise Alder, who displays some fine chest notes and whose ornamentation is excellent with the exception of the absence of cadential (or any other) trills.

It has long been known that the oft-referred to ‘valedictory’ qualities of Concerto No. 27 in B-flat, K595 belong to the imagination, since it is now known to have been composed earlier, probably between 1787 and 1789, than was once believed. However, Cliff Eisen’s notes advance an argument for the same thing applying to Concerto No. 25 in C, K503 an idea new to me. Eisen argues that at least in part it may date from between 1784 and 1786, thus making it one of the works Mozart is known to have started and then put aside for completion when he wanted a new work. More importantly, as noted above, both works are among the greatest Mozart composed in a genre that he transformed over the course of his lifetime. For sheer grandeur he never excelled the opening Allegro maestoso of K503, the contrast with the reflective opening movement of K595 here underlined by the gentle, almost understated treatment of the latter.

Detailed comment on the individual concertos can be restricted to a few points. The opening of K503 might have benefitted from a little more ceremonial pomp, though that impression does not apply to its return after the development. The secondary idea in the same movement might be considered a bit brisk and inflexible. The ornamented entry by the piano in the central Andante of the same concerto is magical and the final Allegretto has a nice sense of operatic bustle. In K595 the unexpected restlessness that develops in the central Larghetto is well brought out, while the solo oboe’s beautifully played lead-back to the main theme can serve as a special example of the high quality of the AAMs playing.

Overall, the merits of Robert Levin’s playing by now need little further rehearsing. His ability to shape Mozart’s lines with equal idiomatic insight in both passaggi and cantabile is a joy, while his imaginative ornamentation never exceeds the bounds of stylish decoration. As already made clear this is a truly fitting conclusion to a series that for long looked as if it would remain a torso. Congratulations to all that oversaw its completion are very much in order.

Brian Robins

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Recording

Legros : Haute-contre de Gluck

Reinoud de Mechelen, A Nocte Temporis
72:19
Alpha 992

This CD brings together repertoire by a variety of composers for the uniquely French haute-contre or high tenor voice, personified here by the excellent soloist Reinoud van Mechelen. Also directing the ensemble A Nocte Temporis, van Mechelen presents a selection of haute-contre arias which would have been sung by the operatic tenor Joseph Legros who dominated the Paris Opéra for twenty years from his appointment in 1764. During his tenure, he sang the music of still familiar composers such as Gluck and JC Bach, as well as now less familiar composers such as François-Joseph Gossec, André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry and Niccoló Piccinni and practically forgotten musicians such as Jean-Benjamin de la Borde, Pierre-Montan Berton, Jean-Claude Trial and Joseph Legros himself. Reinoud van Mechelen has a lovely effortless high tenor voice, instantly accounting for the enduring popularity of Legros. Supported by a superb instrumental ensemble, he wisely lets them occasionally play a purely instrumental piece for variety, but the main virtue of this CD is his lovely vocal interpretation of this unfamiliar repertoire. Perhaps inevitably, the musical standards take a marked upturn with the advent of Gluck, just as his arrival at the Paris Opéra in 1774 seems to have well and truly shaken things up. The reported tension between Legros and Gluck may have been largely confected, and certainly the music Gluck wrote for Legros to sing exploited his gifts in a thorough and musically imaginative way. An aria composed by Legros for himself to sing has an insouciant charm, but he was probably right to keep on the day job, singing the music of his compositional betters! This CD, the third in a series exploring music written for haute-contres and preceded by Lully and Rameau’s star tenors, very usefully and stylishly brings together some beautiful music, and I feel a singer who also directs his accompanying ensemble brings a further dimension to this fascinating and enjoyable repertoire.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Berlin Harpsichord Concertos

Philippe Grisvard, Ensemble Diderot, Johannes Pramsohler
77:45
Audax Records ADX11211

This is a welcome recording of some unjustly neglected music.  Great composers cast long shadows and, in this case, those who overlapped with J.S. Bach and his son C.P.E. have not always had much of a look in. Grisvard and the Ensemble Diderot make an impressive start at remedying that situation with this recording of concertos by four composers who had strong connections to the Berlin court of Frederick the Great. They have deliberately avoided C.P.E. Bach in favour of introducing music by his near contemporaries. Peter Wollny’s very informative sleeve notes give short biographies and provide the context for the music. Christoph Nichelmann, Carl Heinrich Graun and Christoph Schaffrath were close contemporaries of C.P.E.; Ernst Wilhelm Wolf was twenty years younger. Nichelmann was a pupil in the Leipzig Thomasschule in the early 1730s and later served as second harpsichordist in Berlin for a time, until a personality clash with C.P.E. led to him leaving that court. Graun is mainly known for his operas and a Passion composed for Berlin. Schaffrath worked for Frederick as crown prince, and later for his sister Anna Amalia. Wolf did not actually work in Berlin – he served in Leipzig and Weimar – but came under the Prussian capital’s musical influence through the mediation of Georg Benda. 

The music draws clear inspiration from both Bachs, with a strong sense of Sturm und Drang clear from the first movement of Nichelmann’s D minor concerto which opens the disc. Schaffrath’s first movement is a muscular fugue in C minor, starting in the strings but later developed in an extended solo passage by the keyboard. Ritornello form predominates throughout these works, with extended solo passages for harpsichord, especially so in Wolf’s somewhat later concerto. The dialogue between soloist and strings is greatly assisted by the recording engineers, who have produced an excellent balance. Although there are only five string players, their playing and the recording quality tricks the ear into thinking that there are several more players in ripieno passages. Grisvard plays on a Mietke copy by Christoph Kern which has a full rich sound and good registrational capabilities. Cadenzas survive for the Nichelmann and Schaffrath works; Grisvard has developed his own for the other two which sound entirely idiomatic.  His playing throughout is both confident and nuanced, showing a real understanding of the style of this transitional period, with its predictabilities and idiosyncrasies. This comes across as very attractive music, played with energy and plenty of forward drive. These performances really whet the appetite for more of this music and the recording can be highly recommended.

Noel O’Regan

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Recording

Haydn: Symphonies 15 – La Reine

Kammerorchester Basel conducted by Giovanni Antonini
66:29
Alpha Classics Alpha 696

Most enthusiasts will by now surely need no introduction to this treasurable series of the complete Haydn symphonies, a project planned to reach completion by 2032, thus marking the 300th anniversary of the composer’s birth. For those that might be making their first acquaintance with the series, the recordings are divided between the Kammerorchester Basel and Giovanni Antonini’s own Il Giardino Armonico and is intended to eventually include Haydn’s entire symphonic output.

From the outset, the performances have been marked by a rare and felicitous combination of strongly incisive playing of diamantine clarity combined with warm sensitivity.  In the present set of performances one need only, for example, bring to mind the celebratory opening movement of Symphony No 50, with its trumpets and timpani cutting through the texture like a sabre to illustrate the first point, while the delicacy of the light-footed Romance of No. 85 serves ideally as an example of just how sensitive and elegant Antonini’s direction can be.

The symphonies on the present CD most obviously have in common that all three have a slow introduction, but there are more subtle links, too.  The earliest is No 50 in C, a fully scored work with a pair of trumpets and timpani dating from 1773. Its first two movements are believed to have originally formed  part of the now-lost incidental music for Der Götterrath, which forms the prologue to Philemon und Baucis, first given in the marionette theatre at Esterháza for the Empress Maria Theresa. The Andante moderato (ii) is notable for its richly warm colouring – here beautifully captured – with obbligato cello doubling the melodic line, while the Minuet brings back the trumpets and drums for one of those dance movements you find it difficult to imagine being actually danced.  Symphony No 62 in D probably owes its existence to a familiar modern problem – building works overrunning their completion date. In this case, it was the new theatre at Esterháza that opened in 1780 on St Theresa’s Day, the name day of the empress. It had been intended to open with Haydn’s new La fedelta premiata but the elaborate stage machinery not having been installed it was replaced with a play. In order that his Kapellmeister should still be represented, Prince Nicolaus apparently asked Haydn for a new symphony. Haydn obliged with the present hybrid work, one with a history too complex to go into here. Suffice it to say the unusual Allegretto that forms its second movement is a remarkably individual passage that proceeds into curiously mysterious territory.

Much the best known of these symphonies is No. 85 in B flat, one of the six so-called ‘Paris Symphonies’ (no’s 82-87) probably written in 1785 as a commission from the famous Concert de la Loge Olympique. It acquired its nickname ‘La Reine’ very early on, a reference often mistakenly attributed to Maria Theresa, but in fact referring to her daughter Marie Antoinette, who had become Queen of France in 1774. The opening Adagio – Vivace provides a perfect example of the supreme merits of the mix of robust energy and lyricism Antonini brings to his Haydn, the lovely cantabile oboe solo that dominates the secondary idea here splendidly played. And there could be no better illustration of the deliciously featherweight lightness of touch he obtains from his players than the opening of the Presto finale before it bursts into forceful operatic drama to carry the symphony surging to its conclusion.

This is quite simply another splendid addition to a series at present bidding fair to be the set of Haydn symphonies.

Brian Robins

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Recording

Haydn: Baryton Trios

Treasures from the Esterháza Palace 2
Valencia Baryton Project
62:55
NAXOS 8.573504

Haydn’s employer, Prince Nikolaus Esterháza, was a proficient player of the baryton, essentially a bass viola d’amore – with strings stopped over a bridge and played with a bow and a series of sympathetic strings that resonate and can be plucked with the thumb. The composer was commissioned to write new music for the Prince and he produced over a hundred trios with viola and cello. Each begins with its longest movement, followed by a minuet and trio (or a similar dance), and concludes with a short, quick movement. Many of them are in A major because of the tuning of the baryton, but this selection of six by the Valencia Baryton Project (Matthew Baker as the Prince on baryton, Estevan de Almeida Ries as Haydn on viola, and Alex Friedhoff on cello) includes one each in C, D and G major. The music is – of course – charming, especially so when the viola and cello accompany the main attraction with plucked notes. I have heard several recordings of this repertoire (though not these particular pieces) before and have rarely been so aware of the sympathetic strings, the metallic buzz of the plucked notes. I mean that positively – the engineers have done an excellent job of capturing the sound quality without distorting it or upsetting the balance with the other instruments. I was sure a couple of tracks would be more than enough, so imagine my surprise when the music stopped – I’d happily listened to over an hour of Haydn played by the same three instruments! It really was a very pleasant hour.

Brian Clark

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Recording

Sperger: String Quartets op. 1

Mitglieder der Kammerakademie Potsdam
55:51
cpo 555 470-2

Johann Matthias Sperger‘s three string quartets, opus 1, were printed by the renowned Berlin published Hummel in 1791, the year of Mozart’s death. Comparisons with the younger man’s work are inevitable. Although Sperger’s works very definitely deserve to be heard (and this excellent performance on modern instruments can only help lift the composer’s popularity), these three substantial pieces could have been written by a young Mozart, not the man who had just died. As noted in the booklet, Sperger’s more introspective moments (especially in the slow movements, but always when he wanders into a minor key) are his strongest. He was not a shy musician, dedicating his music to the Russian Tsar and the King of Prussia, and I think he had good reason to think his output good enough. There are at least six more quartets awaiting discovery – perhaps a period quartet out there would like to take up the baton?

Brian Clark

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Recording

Mozart: Piano Concertos

K238, 242, 246
Robert Levin, tangent piano, Ya-Fei Chuang, fortepiano, Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings conductor & harpsichord
60:43
AAM AAM044

I referred to this performance of the three-piano concerto, K242 in my review of its previous incarnation in the series in December 2023. On the earlier disc, it was played by husband and wife team Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang in the adaptation for two pianos made by Mozart, the third piano part being near-redundant (it was composed for the young daughter of one of Mozart’s patrons). As I mentioned at the time – and please refer back to the earlier review for a more detailed introduction to the work – the idea of doing it again in its original version seems to be carrying the concept of the intégrale to extreme lengths. Ah, but there’s a gimmick (or fresh idea, if you prefer) here too, for the performance is given on three different instruments, with Levin playing a modern reproduction of a tangent piano built by Spath and Schmahl in 1794, his wife a copy of an Andreas Stein fortepiano of 1787. Oddly, given the usual sumptuous booklet provided by AAM, the harpsichord played by Laurence Cummings is not identified, hardly a major problem in this case given the instrument is virtually inaudible for much of the time.

The line-up is of course one that Mozart would never have employed and thus rather pointless, though Cliff Eisen argues for it in his usual scholarly fashion. This is particularly pertinent given that the sonority of the tangent piano is not particularly appealing, its upper register being weak and thin, to my ears considerably less attractive than the fuller-bodied, mellow sound of Chuang’s Stein. Unsurprisingly the performance is not greatly different from that on the earlier disc, as the relative timings suggest. As with that performance, the most satisfying and sensitive playing comes in the central Adagio, with, dare I say it, Mrs Levin just edging it for expressive playing over her one-time teacher when she takes up the theme. Needless to say, Levin’s spontaneous extemporary embellishment is as much a pleasure as ever; moments such as the playful second return to the rondo theme of the finale are sheer delight.

Both K238 in B flat and K 246 in F (Numbers 6 and 7) were composed in Salzburg during the first half of 1776. They mark the end of Mozart’s apprenticeship as a piano concerto composer; his next essay in the form would to be the Concerto in E flat, K271, dating from the following year, his first outright masterpiece in the form. Nevertheless, K238 in particular is an especially lovable work, with a slow movement that is the first in the long line of dreamy, moon-lit andantes, here played with real sensitivity. I sensed the opening Allegro aperto (meaning ‘brightly’) was taken a trifle brusquely, but it is slower than that of Malcolm Bilson (Archiv), a warning of the dangers of paying too much attention to timings when other factors may also be involved. The final is spirited and emphatic,  Levin’s imaginative treatment of the final appearance of the rondo theme again joyously improvised. K246, written for Countess Lützow, makes fairly modest demands on the soloist and is less distinctive, though the thrusting energy of the opening movement is compelling. The rondo finale is again played here in slightly too staccato a style for my taste, but otherwise the performance is unexceptionable.

Throughout Levin is capably accompanied by a smallish body from the AAM. As with previous issues since this series was resurrected the sound is not ideal, being a little restricted through speakers, although less so through headphones. If my calculations are correct there’s now just one to go in this valuable series.

Brian Robins

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Joseph Martin Kraus: Overtures

THERESIA, directed by Claudio Astronio
67:44
cpo 555 579-2

Prepare to have your attention seized from the very first bars of this amazing release! There are eleven openings on the programme, from operas (as you would expect) to cantatas for birthdays and funerals. Pretty much an exact contemporary of Mozart, Kraus (who died a year later) was the master of Sturm und Drang, but more than that, he was an excellent orchestrator, searching just the right timbre for his dramatic gestures – I am not exaggerating when I confess to having been tense throughout the equally excellent THERESIA’s rendition of the prologue to the composer’s “Æneas i Cartago”. The overtures to Acts 1 and 5 of that massive work also feature – the exemplary booklet note by Kraus expert Bertil van Boer explains that the programme is essentially a musical palindrome of keys with what he considers to be the epitome of Kraus’s writing in this style, the opening to Act 1. It is unbelievable to think that this outstanding recording on period instruments is the work of a youth orchestra. Of course, the members (whose names cover most European languages except English, of course… another Brexit benefit?!) have studied long and hard and obviously have talent oozing from their pores, yet still it is astounding that they reach such heights. The recording engineers have done well to capture all that youthful energy, which they certainly put to good use!

I am happy to report that the booklet also predicts more recordings on cpo from THERESIA – if they are half as good as this one, I will be more than impressed!

Brian Clark

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Recording

Mozart: Piano Concertos

K242, K315f, K365
Robert Levin & Ya-Fei Chuang fortepiano, Bojan Čičić violin, Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Laurence Cummings
60:48
AAM AAM043

Two reviews of the previous issue in this revived series appeared on EMR earlier in 2023, mine in July and that of my colleague D James Ross in October. Well, why not? It’s always interesting to read different reviews of the same concert or CD. On that occasion Ross was rather more enthusiastic than me about an issue that curiously included no music played on the piano (or of course in this case fortepiano). Both Ross and I provided an introduction to the resumption of a series that it seemed for some years was likely to remain incomplete, so I’ll simply refer interested readers to one (or both!) of those reviews.

There is no general shortage of fortepianos on the present CD, though there is a shortage of one such instrument in the case of K242 in F, which is the concerto for three pianos, but here played on a version for two, which Mozart himself later adopted as being more practical. The unusual combination of three concertante instruments  – at least in Salzburg, where it was written, if less so in Paris and Mannheim – is explained by it having been composed in 1776 for one of Mozart’s patrons, the Countess Lodron and her two young daughters, age 15 and 11. It conjures up a charming domestic scene, though the countess must have had a salon of substantial size to accommodate three pianos and an orchestra that includes oboes and horns. Not surprisingly most of the leading material is assigned to the first pianist but the demands made on the second are not far behind. Cast in the usual three movements, the most substantial expressively is the central Adagio, the poetic yearning of which suggests a later phase of Mozart’s life. The performance by Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang, his wife, is also at its best in this movement, finding sensitivity not always apparent elsewhere, though the performance is as fluent and agile as always from this source. According to the beautifully produced hard-cover booklet the three-piano version will be included in a future issue, which is surely pushing completeness to the limit.

The only query surrounding the more familiar two-piano Concerto in E flat, K365/316a is a date of composition, which as with the greatest of Mozart’s concertante works, the Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola in E flat, K364/320d, is unknown.  Both belong to Mozart’s final years in Salzburg, c 1780, but no purpose for their composition is known and the autograph scores are lost. The performance by the Levins again has a  pleasingly natural flow, though the rondo finale opens with a somewhat graceless, clipped orchestral introduction and a speed that could with advantage have been steadier. But there is considerable wit and sparkle in the playing and the wit and touches of rubato from the soloists, not to mention the ever-present fascination of Levin’s renowned improvisatory embellishments stand the performances in good stead. Cumming’s somewhat four-square accompaniment here as throughout again reveal him as a less idiomatic Mozartian than was Christopher Hogwood in the earlier Florilegium issues.

The final work is a fragment from another concertante work, a Concerto for piano and violin in D, KAnh56 (315f), one of a number of works Mozart for one reason or another stopped working on. This one dates from 1778 and his stay in Mannheim on his return journey home from Paris. From a letter to his father we know it was intended for the violinist Ignaz Fränzl, leader of a new ‘academy’ there, but it breaks off after 120 bars, an extraordinary fact given that the work was planned on an unusually ambitious scale not only as to scoring, which includes horns, trumpets and timpani, but scale, the opening orchestral ritornello being of such imposing length and grandeur that it caused Einstein to consider Mozart’s inability to complete the work a major loss. The opening Allegro is given in a reconstruction by Robert Levin, but is disappointing in that the violin tone of Bojan Čičić, at least as recorded, sounds thin. Overall this is a fascinating issue that those collecting the series will want to obtain, but it doesn’t convince completely.

Brian Robins

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Recording

Mozart : Piano Concertos K107s K175 K336

Robert Levin, Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings
62:33
AAM 042

The Academy of Ancient Music’s complete recordings of the Mozart piano concertos with Robert Levin is a project begun in 1994 under the direction of Christopher Hogwood and resumed in the 2020s, now under the direction of Laurence Cummings, in which the latest scholarship is combined with state-of-the-art period performance. For volume 10, we return to Mozart’s earliest essays in the genre, a movement from Nannerl’s Music Book reconstructed by Levin, the composer’s three concertos K107 based on J C Bach Sonatas and his first completely original Concerto K175 no 5. Famous for his quest for authenticity as a keyboard player specialising in the music of the 18th century, Levin’s flair for embellishment is given full rein here – I remember him explaining to me at a concert (only partly in jest) that he had the musical notes in front of him on his piano mainly so that he knew what to avoid in his embellished versions. The radical approach of this project is further manifest in the fact that no piano features in the making of the CD! In the extensive and lavishly presented programme notes, Cliff Eisen makes a very cogent case for the K175 concerto having been intended for performance on organ, and this imaginative piece flamboyantly scored by the young Mozart fresh from a visit to Mannheim for horns, trumpets, timpani, oboes, bassoon and strings works very well as an organ concerto. The solo instrument is the recently restored George England in Christ’s Chapel in Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift, Dulwich, which offers a range of characteristic stops which bring this lovely music to life. If the geography of the chapel just occasionally takes the edge off the crispness of this performance compared to an account on fortepiano, the colour palette more than compensates. In similar vein for the G major fragment and the K107 concerti Levin very convincingly employs a harpsichord, a 2013 copy by Alan Gotto of an instrument of around 1770 by Johann Heinrich Silbermann of Strasbourg. It is interesting that having composed them in his teens in 1773, Mozart continued to perform these concertos on tour, clearly enjoying their freshness and originality. The influence of Mannheim and the revolutionary Stamitzes is never far from this music, while J C Bach’s sonatas provide a useful framework and springboard for the developing young composer. Levin and the AAM provide beautifully nuanced accounts, crisp and fresh but also thoughtful and profound. For a brief bonus track Levin returns to the organ for no 17 of Mozart’s K336 church sonatas, a set of effervescent works in which I have observed elsewhere Mozart’s originality found perhaps its most unfettered expression. With its rippling cadenza and its dynamic interaction between soloist and ensemble, it provides the perfect sign-off for this excellent CD.

D. James Ross