July 20, 2006


Mozart: Concerto (Pasticcio) for Harpsichord and Orchestra, K40; Concerto for Harpsichord and Orchestra, K246 (Lützow); Concerto for Fortepiano and Strings, K107/1. Wolfgang Brunner, harpsichord and fortepiano, and conducting Salzburger Hofmusik. Profil. $16.99.

Dowland: Lute Music, Volume 1. Nigel North, lute. Naxos. $8.99.

     The 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth has led to the rethinking of performances of some of his works (and to the over-performance of others).  Wolfgang Brunner and the original-instrument players of Salzburger Hofmusik here offer unusual – and quite authentic-sounding – versions of some very early Mozart keyboard works.  The intimate feeling of these performances (recorded in 1998 but fitting right into the current Mozart mania) seems right in line with court life in Mozart’s time, and it is surprisingly easy to imagine the boy genius playing these pieces with a sound much like the one here.

     Mozart’s first seven piano concertos are actually arrangements of works by other composers, and are therefore collectively called Pasticcio (pastiches).  K40 is based on music by Honauer, Eckart and C.P.E. Bach.  Even in this youthful work – Mozart was 11 when he wrote it – there is a prefiguring of later Mozart here and there; but in the main, both this and the roughly contemporaneous K107/1 are merely delightful parlor music, played here with great verve, spirit and authenticity.  These works would almost certainly have been played on the harpsichord, as they are here – and because of their small scale, they sound just right on it.  K246, known as the “Lützow Concerto” in honor of the noblewoman for whom it was written, is played here on the fortepiano rather than the harpsichord, leading to a more ordinary but still interesting listening experience.  It is unknown which keyboard instrument Mozart had in mind for this work, but he did play it as a piano concerto himself years after composing it, so it is sensible to use the fortepiano, as Brunner does here.  The one oddity of this performance is that the “Lützow” includes a written-out basso continuo part – something Mozart almost never provided – but Brunner chooses to extemporize instead.  That is in keeping with 18th-century performance practice, but it would have been nice to hear what Mozart wrote down.  It would also have been nice to hear more music – the CD runs only 51 minutes and could easily have included two more Pasticcio concertos.  Still, it is a great pleasure to hear what there is.

     The pleasures of John Dowland’s music are of a different sort and from a much earlier time – 200 years before Mozart’s.  Dowland (1563-1626) was an almost exact contemporary of Shakespeare (1564-1616), and since Dowland wrote for the theater and Shakespeare included music and songs in his plays, listening to Dowland’s work is very much like an aural journey to Shakespeare’s time (though it is not known if any Dowland pieces were actually performed within Shakespeare productions).  Lutenist Nigel North plays more than an hour of music – about one-fifth of Dowland’s surviving oeuvre – on this new Naxos CD.  North, a prominent exponent of the lute who is largely self-taught, handles this notoriously difficult instrument (which has neither a standardized number of strings nor a standardized tuning pattern) with great sensitivity, producing nuanced performances of considerable beauty.  All eight of Dowland’s “fancies” or “fantasies” are included here – works following no specific musical pattern and therefore offering the musician more opportunities for self-expression than usual. North’s lute playing is very expressive indeed, whether in dance movements (almain, galliard, jig) or in quieter or more deeply felt works, such as “A Dream,” “Orlando Sleepeth” and fantasies 3 and 4.  These works were never intended to be heard at great length, and this CD is better listened to in small sections than as a whole.  There is beauty in every section, in every piece of these tunes of very long ago.

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