September 25, 2008


Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 5 (K. 175), 6 (K. 238) and 8 (K. 246, “Lützow”). David Greilsammer, piano and conducting the Suedama Ensemble. Naïve. $13.99.

Mendelssohn: Piano Concerto No. 1; Chausson: Concerto for Violin, Piano and Strings. Bella Davidovich, piano; Dmitry Sitkovetsky, violin; Moscow Chamber Orchestra conducted by Constantine Orbelian (Mendelssohn) and Dmitry Sitkovetsky (Chausson). Delos. $16.99.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 9. Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. ATMA Classique. $16.99 (SACD).

     In some cases, but only in some, we tend to think it presumptuous for musicians of a certain age to perform music written by composers of a certain different age. Either the musician needs more “seasoning” if deemed too young to handle a work of considerable maturity, or a musician is thought to lack “fire and passion” if trying to perform, late in life, a work of a composer’s youth. Happily, this sort of ageism is less prevalent than it used to be, but it still exists – often unspoken. And of course there are composers whose age is always deemed virtually irrelevant to the quality of their work, the foremost among them being Mozart. Yet Mozart’s earliest piano concertos – including arrangements of sonatas by others (K. 37, 39, 40 and 41) and by J.C. Bach (K. 107/1-3) – are rarely performed and not always included in the numbering of his concertos. And his first three original concertos get far less attention than his fourth, the wonderful "Jeunehomme" (No. 9, K. 271). Yet as David Greilsammer shows, those first three concertos have a great deal to recommend them – especially when played as lightly and elegantly as Greilsammer performs them. The most interesting is No. 5 in D, whose finale is wonderfully energetic and original – too original for some audiences, Mozart thought, so for a time he played a newly written Rondo, K. 382, instead of the finale he had first written (it would have been nice to have had that Rondo on Greilsammer’s CD – the disc runs just 62 minutes, so there would have been plenty of room for it). Concertos Nos. 6 in B flat and 8 in C (wrongly listed as being in B flat in this CD’s booklet, although the correct key appears on the CD cover) are more firmly in galant style, but in both these works there is more prominence for winds and greater independence of the orchestra than is found in other concertos of the time. (The reason the numbers skip is that Concerto No. 7 is the three-piano concerto, K. 242.) Greilsammer is as adept at conducting these works as he is at playing them; the result is a thoroughly spirited set of performances that shows the concertos to their best advantage. Purists may be concerned about Greilsammer’s use of his own cadenzas – Mozart’s have survived for Nos. 5 and 8. But Greilsammer’s cadenzas are true to the youthful spirit of the music and do not overwhelm it; they work quite well.

     The issue of relative age of performer and composer is more in the forefront in the CD featuring Bella Davidovich, who recently turned 80, and her son, Dmitry Sitkovetsky. Their handling of Sitkovetsky’s arrangement for string orchestra of Chausson’s Concerto for Violin and Piano is excellent, with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra playing almost as lucidly as would a string quartet – for which this piece was originally written. But this is a work of its composer’s maturity, although Chausson was only in his mid-40s when he wrote it. The Mendelssohn is a different matter. An exuberant piece written when Mendelssohn was just 22, it should fly lightly off the keyboard throughout; but Davidovich makes her part a bit stodgy and fussy, with little ritards and occasional overemphases within phrases that interfere with the headlong rush of the music. She has clearly thought the performance through carefully, but her pianism is oddly mismatched with the playing of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra here: Constantine Orbelian leads the group with an exuberance that exceeds Davidovich’s own. This is certainly a creditable Mendelssohn performance, and the Chausson is a gem; but the young Mendelssohn was more fleet-footed than Davidovich allows him to be in this recording.

     The matter of age is reversed in the Bruckner Ninth as conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who was 32 when the recording was made last year. It seems in some ways the height of folly for a young conductor to attempt to scale the heights of Bruckner’s final symphony, which he did not live to complete. But in fact, Nézet-Séguin offers a very fine if not terribly original approach to the music; his SACD, which has exceptionally fine sound, gets a (+++) rating. Nézet-Séguin is at his best in the first movement, allowing its thematic groups to build naturally as climax after climax flows through the orchestra (whose one slightly weak section is, unfortunately, the brass). The ghostly flickering quality of the Scherzo is missing, however, and Nézet-Séguin speeds up a couple of pizzicato sections for no discernible reason. And the Adagio never quite gels: individual elements are impressive, but a sense of start-to-finish flow is missing, and the movement bogs down several times. Ongoing momentum is absolutely necessary to carry this half-hour movement all the way through movingly and with strong musical effect. This performance falls a bit short – but only a bit. It seems a safe bet that, a few years from now, Nézet-Séguin will see Bruckner’s Ninth somewhat differently and find a way to put his own stamp on it more effectively than he does here.

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