January 17, 2013


Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 13 and 14; Serenade No. 13, “Eine kleine Nachtmusik”; Variations for Piano on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman.” Janina Fialkowska, piano; Chamber Players of Canada. ATMA Classique. $16.99.

Mozart: Divertimenti Nos. 11 and 17. Cologne Chamber Orchestra conducted by Helmut Müller-Brühl. Naxos. $9.99.

Mozart: Sinfonia concertante, K. 364; Schumann: Piano Concerto; Rossini: Overture to “Semiramide.” Gerhart Hetzel, violin; Rudolf Streng, viola; Sviatoslav Richter, piano; Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Riccardo Muti. Orfeo. $22.99.

      A famous line from the movie Casablanca proclaims, “We’ll always have Paris.” In somewhat the same way, performers and listeners alike will always have Mozart. Despite all the recent plumbing of musical depths through discoveries and rediscoveries of long-forgotten composers and less-known works, despite all the efforts to make modern classical music an increasing part of popular consciousness and concert programming, there are certain ineffable and incontrovertible facts about classical works and those who perform and listen to them – and one such fact is that Mozart is, has been and will remain eternally new, eternally astonishing and an eternal draw both in the concert hall and in recorded form.  True, the tendency nowadays is to search for some of his less-often-played music, but in most cases these pieces are just as charming, beautifully made and worthy of attention as his better-known and admittedly somewhat overplayed ones (although it is somewhat questionable whether Mozart can ever be “overplayed”).

      Thus, instead of the umpteenth version of Mozart’s later and frequently performed piano concertos, Janina Fialkowska and the Chamber Players of Canada offer light and lithe versions of two less-known ones on a new CD from ATMA Classique. No. 13, in C, and No. 14, in E-flat, are both forthright, well-constructed and lovely works that integrate piano and orchestra beautifully and balance solo and tutti with exemplary skill. Fialkowska and the orchestra play very well together, their lines weaving in and out pleasantly as Mozart’s beautifully balanced melodies pass from hand to hand. Neither of these concertos is quite at the pinnacle of Mozart’s productions, but both are lovely from start to finish and have galant flourishes that make them attractive and sonically interesting throughout. And the two other works on this CD showcase strings and pianist alone, respectively. Eine kleine Nachtmusik features some of Mozart’s best-known music, but it actually does not get recorded all that frequently nowadays, and this quintet version of the lovely little four-movement serenade is a delightful one, light in texture, very well-played, and evocative of evening without ever inviting actual darkness.  The Variations for Piano on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman” have a nighttime reference, too – the song is known in English as “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” – but again there is nothing dark here. Mozart understood how to write virtuosic but not overdone variations on a simple, pleasant little tune that his audiences and modern ones know equally well. It is important for the pianist not to overwhelm the music or overdo the technique of performing it, and Fialkowska clearly understands this, delivering a fine-hued and rather sweet performance of a piece that is longer and more elaborate than listeners unfamiliar with it might expect – but that never loses its connection with childhood or with a sense of wonder and delight.

      There are delights aplenty in Mozart’s divertimenti, too – they are diversions, yes, not intended to have the strength, drama or cohesiveness of symphonies, being more akin to Baroque suites. But what they lack in carefully structured interrelationship of their movements they make up for through their exploration of all the abilities and sounds of the players. Divertimenti Nos. 11 and 17 are both six-movement works, both are associated with Mozart’s time in Salzburg, and both have a celebratory feel about them – as expected for two pieces in the bright key of D. No. 11 (K. 251) was probably written for the name-day of Mozart’s sister, Nannerl, and No. 17 (K. 334) is associated with the graduation from university of a family friend. Whatever their provenance, though, these are pieces that are simply delightful to hear, as Mozart makes the divertimento form – like so many others – his own. For example, one Menuetto in No. 11 is in the form of a theme and variations; No. 17 also contains a theme and variations, but in its Andante – its two Menuetto movements are in more-traditional form. Through subtleties like this, Mozart guaranteed that even his occasional works (that is, ones written for specific occasions, such as these divertimenti) stood out from similar pieces by other composers, and this is one reason Mozart’s music continues to delight and engage audiences more than 220 years after his death. Finely balanced and nicely nuanced playing by the Cologne Chamber Orchestra under Helmut Müller-Brühl helps make this CD a very pleasant experience indeed.

      The remastered (and high-priced) CD of performances led by Riccardo Muti in 1972 and 1974 has some excellent moments, too, although they are primarily in the Schumann Piano Concerto rather than the Mozart and Rossini works that accompany it. The musical mixture here is a touch on the odd side, with the wonderful Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola being the longest work on the disc but taking a back seat to the Schumann, because the soloists in the Mozart are little-known, while Sviatoslav Richter is world-famous. In fact, Gerhart Hetzel and Rudolf Streng deliver very fine performances indeed, absolutely free of grandstanding and clearly committed to Mozart’s finely honed structure for this double concerto: the lines of the two soloists weave in and out of seamlessly with each other and with the orchestra, and the overall performance is a strongly committed and very poised one. The Vienna Philharmonic is, though, sonically rather too lush for this music, and Muti – who has a somewhat overblown reputation as a conductor, particularly where Mozart is concerned – makes no attempt to lighten the orchestral sound or make it more “Mozartean.” In fairness, though, this was not a high priority in the 1970s. And the orchestra certainly gives its all in the Schumann, which gets a very large-scale reading here, with Richter and Muti both seeing the work as having a grand, arch-like structure with considerable strength of orchestration (something often not regarded as Schumann’s strong suit).  This is a top-notch performance that wears very well indeed. The Semiramide overture is fine as a curtain raiser (it appears first on the CD): this is one of Rossini’s biggest and most-dramatic overtures, and again the sheer size and warmth of the orchestra work in its favor, even if Muti’s interpretation does not bring anything particularly new or revelatory to the music. The strength of the Schumann here is the most attractive element of the disc, although the wonders of Mozart, even if somewhat muted (or Muti-ed) in this recording, also come through quite clearly and reaffirm his preeminence in concerts both past and present.

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