MOZART: Piano Concertos K. 413, 414 & 415 – Kristian Bezuidenhout/ Freiburger Barockorchestra – Harmonia mundi 902218, 69:31 (9/16/16) ****:

(Kristian Bezuidenhout; fortepiano/ Gottfriend von der Goltz, violin and director)

Three bonhomous concertos which represent Mozart’s bid to win over the Vienna audience, played on period instruments.

The three concertos under review here, K. 413-415, have a special place in Mozart’s career, and indeed in the birth of the modern world.  After years of onerous service under the patronage of the Archbishop in Salzburg, Mozart huffily relocated to Vienna, where he sought to finally establish his artistic and financial independence. In 1782, a year after the move, he announced in the paper the publication–and what is more important, the sale by subscription–of three new piano concertos. It was a carefully prepared campaign which completed his long passage from celebrity performer to ambitious client to independent entrepreneur. He knew his worth, but it still remained for him to convince his public, the Viennese bourgeoisie. By his own reckoning this public was divided into two classes. The amateurs (Liebhaber) and connoisseurs (Kenner). Thus Mozart remarked to his father in a letter that the concertos are “something between too easy and too difficult.”  But he believed in his powers to persuade and delight everyone if only the music could speak for itself, unfettered by strictures of authority.  It seems this project should have succeeded. Indeed, its failure (after an auspicious start) and Mozart’s own sorry end just seven years later is so perplexing as to have given rise to conspiracy theories which involve nefarious enemies and sinister plots.

These three concertos were written for four voices, a quattro, with optional oboe, bassoon and horn parts. It is a bit disappointing that these instruments tag along behind the strings in this recording without independent parts. As for the performance of the Freiburger Barockorchester, there can be no quibble. They are  among the best in the business, and they deliver handsomely.  Like many others, I have been imprinted with the sound image of the modern piano, more specifically, on the larger than life Sony recordings of Murray Perahia, and thus, it is not easy to accommodate the smaller voice of the fortepiano. It seems like one dimension of the music has been rescinded. Nor is this particular instrument especially warm. The brilliant playing of Kristian Bezuidenhout, nevertheless, mostly succeeds in bringing these fairly light-weight pieces to life. He especially warms to the dramatic improvisatory passages and the spirited allegros. However, in the movement with the most depth, the andante of K. 414, in which Mozart quotes a theme by recently deceased J.C. Bach’s Calamita di cuori, the piano seems incapable of grief; too much youth and gaiety, not to mention wigs and bustles, seem to come to the fore.

The real problem with this set is where to put the first of these Concertos, K. 413 in F major. The solution was to squeeze it between the 2nd and the 3rd of the series. Especially in the first subject of the allegro, we feel as if little Wolferl were standing on his piano seat looking over his shoulder at his astonished audience. The effervescence and jollity is cloying. Not that there is shortage of melodic invention.  In the Menuetto, and for a moment it in the Larghetto, he isn’t looking at everybody for approval but rather looking at one special person with real tenderness.

Fortunately, the last in the series, K. 415, is suitably grand. There are loquacious themes, a better integration with the orchestra, a searching quality that only momentarily arrested with those cute gestures that Mozart cannot resist. By the last Andante, we no longer badly miss the the modern piano; Here the expressive range is wider, from whispering blandishments to operatic tutti exclamations.

These are fine performances if you wish to hear a more intimate, authentic instrument garden-party approach. And please don’t forget to tip the  artist, as these performances remind us of the difficulty of the artist in a world that undervalues creative work in general.

TrackList: Piano Concerto K. 414; Piano Concerto K. 413; Piano Concerto K. 414

—Fritz Balwit