October 22, 2015


Idil Biret Concerto Edition, Volume 6: Mozart—Piano Concertos Nos. 13 and 17. Idil Biret, piano; London Mozart Players conducted by Patrick Gallois. IBA. $9.99.

C.P.E. Bach: Hamburg Symphonies, Wq 182 and Wq 183. Kammerorchester ‘Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’ conducted by Hartmut Haenchen. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).

Mozart: Davide Penitente. Christiane Karg, soprano; Marianne Crebassa, mezzo-soprano; Stanislas de Berbeyrac, tenor; Salzburger Bachchor and Les Musiciens du Louvre conducted by Marc Minkowski; Académie équestre de Versailles with stage direction and horse dressage by Bartabas (Clément Marty). C Major DVD. $24.99.

     Mozart’s music stands so far above that of virtually all his contemporaries – excepting only Haydn – that it is easy to forget that he was only one among many highly regarded composers of his time. Indeed, he was not sufficiently well thought of to avoid the financial difficulties that plagued him late in his brief life. Yet time after time, hearing Mozart’s music today, listeners must marvel that so much of lasting value was produced by one man who flourished within such a brief period. The Idil Biret Concerto Edition turns to Mozart for its sixth volume, showcasing both the composer and the considerable skill that Biret, although usually considered a specialist more in Romantic music than in the Classical era, brings to the performance of Mozart’s music. Unlike a large number of the many releases from IBA, the Concerto Edition CDs offer recent readings – in this case, recorded in December 2014. That means Biret was 73 when she made this recording, but a listener would never know that from the bright, limpid readings and light pianistic touch she brings to the music, or the apparently effortless way in which she weaves her piano solos into and about the London Mozart Players under Patrick Gallois’ direction. Interestingly, the text on the back of the CD contains reviews of Biret’s Mozart performances dating to early 1953 (when she was 11 years old), 1963 and 1980 – all quite irrelevant to the music heard on this disc, except insofar as they show that she has indeed had a career-long devotion to and excellence in Mozart’s music. Certainly she handles the Piano Concertos Nos. 13 and 17 with firm understanding, both intellectual and technical, and with a wonderful sense of the music’s ebb and flow, its structure and its emotional evocations. Neither of these bright major-key concertos (in C and G, respectively) is among Mozart’s most profound: both have central movements marked Andante, for one thing, although Biret takes the one in No. 17 rather more slowly than that. But if there are more than a few hints of the galant style here, there are also significant ways in which the works call on resources both pianistic and emotional; and Biret, who among other things is a very cerebral and thoughtful performer, has certainly delved into the music deeply and come up with performances offering a fine sense of flow, plenty of bounce where that is appropriate, and periods of thoughtfulness within individual movements (even though no entire movement in either concerto is especially inward-looking). These are the performances of a pianist comfortable in her knowledge of the music, sure in her technique, and certain in a lifetime’s study of a composer who repays dedication by inviting performers and listeners alike to find new things to explore each time his music is heard. The CD is a fine addition to a series showcasing the ways in which a mature Biret both reflects and expands upon the Biret who, when younger, amazed so many who heard her with her fine technique and the depth of her musical understanding.

     The Mozart concertos date from 1783 and 1784, respectively, and an appreciation of just how far above his contemporaries Mozart stood is furthered by listening to some of the highly popular music with which Mozart’s competed – such as the works of C.P.E. Bach (1714-1788). The four symphonies “with 12 obbligato parts,” Wq183, date to 1776, and the six for strings, Wq182, to 1773. They were thus part of the musical scene just when Mozart was making his way in it, although C.P.E. Bach was based in Hamburg (with a publisher in Leipzig), while Mozart’s venues were Salzburg and Vienna. If a direct comparison is therefore impossible, or at any rate unnecessary, the fact remains that these very well-made Bach symphonies, of which the composer was understandably proud, sound like the products of a much earlier time than Mozart’s. All 10 symphonies are in three movements (the Berlin School of the time, to which C.P.E. Bach adhered in these works, considered minuets too light for this serious form), and all last between nine and 12 minutes, about the length of most Vivaldi concertos. Yet these works are not throwbacks: the Sturm und Drang spirit appears frequently (although only one of the symphonies, No. 5 from Wq182, is in a minor key), and the intense flow of ideas and strong dynamic contrasts mark the works strongly and help explain their considerable popularity in their time. These are very well-made pieces indeed, and receive enthusiastic and knowing performances from the Kammerorchester ‘Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’ under Hartmut Haenchen on a new Brilliant Classics release. Yet these pieces, for all their pleasantries, structural elegance and occasional surprises (notably in swiftly changing dynamics), seem to come from a world and time quite distant from Mozart’s. They represent one direction in which music was going in the Classical era, and one to which many people – indeed, perhaps most – gravitated. But they do not hold a proverbial candle to the expansiveness and emotional involvement offered by the works of Mozart (and, for that matter, Haydn): C.P.E. Bach’s symphonies are not so much a look backward as a look ahead toward a dead end, while Mozart’s orchestral music was largely responsible for opening up entire new vistas.

     Just how far to take that newness, though, was and remains a matter of opinion – and taste. The days of performing Mozart with 100-plus-piece orchestras are largely over, but the impetus to “improve” or rethink his works, particularly the less-known ones, remains very much with us. A perfect example of this is the horse-enhanced (or at any rate horse-focused) presentation of Davide Penitente presented during Mozart Week 2015 in Salzburg. This oratorio is something of a curiosity. Mozart was commissioned to write it in 1785 by the Viennese Society of Musicians. It was to be for a Lenten benefit concert, and that left Mozart short of time. So he did something as unusual for him as it was common for Handel: he recycled some of his earlier music. The Kyrie and Gloria from the unfinished Mass in C Minor became part of this oratorio, which uses both the penitential and joyful psalms of David. The choruses of Davide Penitente are particularly noteworthy, as are two new solo arias, A te, fra tanti affanni (“In you, amid such tribulation”) and Tra l’oscure ombre funeste (“Amid the dark grievous shadows”), both of which open with long, expressive sections that are followed by faster ones requiring considerable vocal virtuosity. Marc Minkowski leads the soloists, chorus and Les Musiciens du Louvre adeptly, bringing out the sumptuous woodwind writing particularly well, although the brass is not always entirely together. But the primary focus of the performance, and of the C Major DVD on which it is now available, is an equestrian one. It takes place in a summer-opera venue called the Felsenreitschule, which dates to 1693 and whose name, “Stone Riding School,” points both to the way it is carved into a cliff and to its original purpose. Given the venue’s origin, the equestrian displays organized by Bartabas (the performing name of horse trainer and impresario Clément Marty) make sense. But only in that regard. Davide Penitente has nothing whatsoever to do with horses, and it might as well have been staged as a ballet as been offered with horses and riders. In fact, the prancing and trotting of the horses is somewhat balletic here, but none of it fits with the music in any meaningful way. The best use of horses comes in the fast-paced chorus Cantiam le glorie (“Let us sing the glories”), where the riders seem almost to be dancing on horseback as their mounts become part of the scene. Clearly intended as an unusual and dramatic visual spectacle, this Davide Penitente is certainly a treat for horse lovers – but for lovers of Mozart, not so much. This DVD is a (+++) release with a very specific target audience – a presentation that shows how well Mozart can stand up under significant reinterpretation, but that does not really add any understanding or significance to the beauties that Mozart himself built into his score.

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