Olga Pashchenko - Mozart: Piano Concertos 9 & 17 - MusicWeb International
The first question in reviewing Mozart piano concertos these days is whether one is comparing the new recording to all other available recordings or whether a distinction is to made between those on the fortepiano with period instruments and those on the modern piano with modern accompaniment. Personally, I tend to lump them all together as possible interpretations of Mozart, but I suspect the word ‘fortepiano’ will have already deterred those with a strong dislike for that particular instrument.
Pashchenko uses two different instruments but both sound good and are very well recorded. There is minimal noise from the mechanics and the slightly more generous acoustic stops the timbre seeming thin, as unfortunately it too often does on recordings of the fortepiano. On one of my comparison recordings of No.17, Ronald Brautigam’s fortepiano sounds rather tinny next to Pashchenko’s much more rounded sound. The fortepiano she uses for K271 has a magnificently resonant bass register.
Pashchenko herself is a much-admired Russian fortepiano specialist. I first came across her as duet partner to Alexander Melnikov in the two-piano arrangement of Debussy’s La Mer. That recording was one of my highlights of the Debussy year 2018 and this gorgeous CD will, I’m sure, add further lustre to her reputation.
The sleeve notes to this release make play of the feminine link between these two particular concertos. The earlier of the two, K271, was written for the visit of a piano playing lady whom history remembers as Madame Jeunehomme but who, according to the entertaining sleeve notes, was actually called Jenamy. K453 was originally written for Barbara Ployer, one of Mozart’s students. Mozart clearly had a high opinion of her talents since this was the finest concerto he had written up to that point.
As the same sleeve note goes on to slyly ask: were any of Mozart’s piano concertos ever really written for anyone but himself? It is an interesting question given the way he tailored arias in his operas to suit particular singers. The evidence of the music would suggest that either he had himself in mind when writing piano concertos, or for some peculiar reason he felt little need to modify his approach for particular performers. It cannot even be claimed that he only did this for singers, since his horn concertos show clear signs of being written with the strengths of a particular performer in mind.
All this aside, it is clear that K271 was designed to show off the full range of Mozart’s compositional talents. Madame Jenamy was en route to Paris, then the centre of musical fashion. I imagine that Mozart was anxious to demonstrate that he wasn’t some sort of small-town hick but au fait with all the latest currents in music. The minuet at the heart of the finale seems the last word in taste and refinement. The extraordinary pain expressed in the slow movement must have taken even the worldly Madame Jenamy aback! Perhaps Mozart felt that, in her, he had a performer who might appreciate such music. We will never know, but what we do have is a concerto that represents a quantum leap in musical history.
Much is made of the early entry of the soloist after the orchestra’s opening rhetorical gesture in that it supposedly anticipates the dramatic opening of Beethoven’s Fourth piano concerto by the soloist. The effect is somewhat watered down by the tendency of fortepiano soloists to play along with opening orchestral tutti like a kind of continuo, but it is still a fine effect and further evidence that Mozart was out to impress his visiting soloist. Pashchenko, who never misses a dramatic trick, romps through this opening. There is often a sense that, in playing a modern piano, pianists have to hold themselves a back little in Mozart where those playing the fortepiano can let themselves off the leash, so to speak, without drowning everyone else out in the process.
The slow movement of K271 on this disc is simply superb. Pashchenko’s funereal tread beneath the aching muted strings produces a remarkable effect. Pleasingly, she and her orchestra never allow sentiment to distort the balancing elegance of the music. If anything, that little hint of restraint is what makes this performance so potent. Her way with the cadenza in this movement, as with all the cadenzas in both concertos, is full of fantasy and spontaneity.
In the finale, the allegros have all the exuberance one could ask for, and the minuet section is elegance personified. Pashchenko brings just a hint of coquetry to the minuet, which averts the danger of it sounding like a second slow movement. My reference version of this concerto is Ashkenazy with István Kertész and the LSO in 1966 (István Kertész - The London Years, Decca 4786420, 14 hours, download only, or Decca 4832588, with Concertos No.8 and Rondo, K386, single album, download only, no booklet). Predictably Ashkenazy is a patrician interpreter but Pashchenko yields little in her own more earthy way.
For such a popular concerto, No.17 doesn’t often get the performances it deserves. Interpreters are required to balance the verve of Mozart’s teeming invention with a pronounced sensual streak. The latter is most pronounced in the chromaticisms of the slow movement, but it runs through all three movements, even the jovial finale. Staying with fortepiano recordings, Malcolm Bilson with John Eliot Gardiner get the energy right but largely miss the sensuality. The Brautigam recording mentioned earlier sadly seems to miss both.
I am happy to say that Pashchenko and colleagues catch both beautifully. Pashchenko is full of play and exuberance but never at the expense of the darker undercurrents of the music.
Woodwind are even more important in No.17 than in K271, and here Il Gardellino really come into their own. I’m a little embarrassed to say my only previous acquaintance with them was a very enjoyable disc of concertos by CPE Bach. They are clearly an outfit to be reckoned with. All of the woodwind excel here, though I want to give special mention to the lovely fat-sounding horns. One of the great advantages of period horns is that they can really go for it without drowning out everyone else.
As with K271, the heart of Pashchenko’s performance is the slow movement. It is easy to think of this music as dark. It certainly sounds nocturnal but it seems to me passionate, erotic even, rather melancholy. Pires and Uchida both sound solemn to the point of despair in this movement. Some might find Pashchenko a little too robust, but I like this earthy side to this performance, which feels more Act 4 of Figaro rather than a stately Donna Anna. Paschenko does not lack depth when the music turns to the minor at the start of the development. She is able to achieve a genuine sotto voce on the fortepiano, which is thoroughly in tune with the music. Brendel is exemplary here, but his soliloquy is more Hamlet where Pashchenko’s is the heartache of the Countess. You can tell by my comparisons, that I feel Pashchenko’s conception of these works is essentially operatic rather than symphonic, which I think is as it should be. Without a sense of the dramatic narrative of these works, something of their magic gets lost and I, for one, believe that, in almost everything he wrote, Mozart was composing operas.
I was very pleased that Pashchenko pays attention to the Allegretto marking of the finale rather than charging off like a rocket as so many period practitioners feel the need to – though in fairness neither Bilson nor Brautigam do in this movement. This more modest pace allows Pashchenko and the orchestra ample time to properly articulate Mozart’s comedy. It also means that they can genuinely and excitingly up the tempo at the end. Those lovely horns again in full cry!
My reference performance for No.17 is a 1961 recording by Hans Richter-Haaser with a vintage Philharmonia under yet again that consummate Mozartian István Kertész. Sadly, it is no longer available. I had to track it down on YouTube, of all places, to check if it was good as I remembered (it was!). I mention it on the off chance that some enterprising label like Beulah can be cajoled into reissuing it!
Until that happens, I suspect all but those most allergic to the fortepiano will find Pashchenko’s dashing interpretation a fine alternative. I do hope this is the beginning of a series, as I would love to hear what these performers would make of the later concertos.