Mozart: Piano Concertos No 15 & 27 / Helmchen, Nikolic

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MOZART Piano Concertos Nos. 15 and 27 • Martin Helmchen (pn); Gordon Nikoli?, cond; Netherlands CO • PENTATONE 5186508 (SACD: 55:27) Exactly one year ago,...

MOZART Piano Concertos Nos. 15 and 27 Martin Helmchen (pn); Gordon Nikoli?, cond; Netherlands CO PENTATONE 5186508 (SACD: 55:27)

Exactly one year ago, in issue 36:5, I expressed only lukewarm enthusiasm for Martin Helmchen’s solo Schumann disc. I’d not heard (and still haven’t) the pianist’s debut album of Mozart concertos (Nos. 13 and 24), which was received very positively by Steven Ritter, and recommended unreservedly by him in 31:4. With this latest release in Helmchen’s expanding discography, I now have the chance to hear him in two other Mozart concertos, Nos. 15 and 27, both in B? Major.

These two scores, programmed on the same disc, make for an interesting pair of bookends, and not just because they’re both in the same key. The B?-Major Concerto No. 27, K 595—as far as we know, and at least as far as the numbering goes—is Mozart’s last piano concerto. The date on the manuscript, “5 January, 1791,” until fairly recent times, was, accepted as the work’s date of composition. But a close examination of the paper has established an earlier date, no later than 1789 and perhaps as early as 1787. This uncertainty is reflected in the Chronological-Thematic Catalog of the Complete Works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart , published in 1964, in which the date of the concerto is given as “?1788–1791, Jan. 5, 1791.” If, in fact, the piece was composed in 1788, it might actually predate the “Coronation” Concerto (No. 26), which would make No. 27 Mozart’s penultimate piano concerto instead of his last one.

About the dating of the other B?-Major Concerto on the disc (No. 15), there is no such uncertainty; it’s dated March 15, 1784; but what makes this score the left-hand bookend in this pairing of works is that it marks the beginning of the series of concertos to which Mozart applied the term “grand.” Presumably, this was “Mozart-speak” for the inclusion of additional instruments in the woodwind section and for their expanded role in the orchestra.

It would be inaccurate to say that Mozart never called for a flute before No. 15; he scored for two of them in his G-Major Concerto (No. 4), K 41, and again in his B?-Major Concerto (No. 6), K 238, something he never did again. Both of those concertos, however, are very sparsely orchestrated, with only two horns plus strings joining the flutes in the former, and two oboes, two horns, and strings joining the flutes in the latter. After that, there are no flutes again until the present Concerto No. 15, and then, only one of them. Indeed, none of the piano concertos going forward ever calls for more than a single flute.

It would also be inaccurate to say that Mozart’s concerto scoring follows a straight line of increasing numbers of instruments. The Concerto No. 13, for example, calls for an orchestra larger than that of No. 15, with two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. No. 15 uses no oboes, no trumpets, and no timpani. Mozart’s “grandest” concerto of all in terms of scoring is No. 24, the “everything bagel”: flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. No other Mozart concerto is as heavily scored. In fact, No. 27, presumably his last piano concerto, is almost regressive as far as its instrumentation is concerned: flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, and strings. From this, I think we can safely say that Mozart was highly sensitive to orchestration; that he didn’t pursue a progressive course of enlarging his orchestra, but rather scored according to what he perceived to be the character of the music.

It is accurate to say, however, that beginning with No. 15 a flute appears in every one of the remaining concertos, as do two bassoons and two horns. Clarinets don’t make their first appearance until No. 22, and are then found only twice again, in Nos. 23 and 24. From No. 16 onward, all but Nos. 22 and 23 use two oboes; and trumpets, always paired with timpani, show up in seven of the concertos, beginning with No. 16.

Based on the foregoing, one could posit that No. 15 is either the last of Mozart’s early piano concertos or the first of his late ones, which is why I characterized it as the left-hand bookend to the right-hand one, No. 27.

Martin Helmchen definitely displays an intuitive feel for Mozart I didn’t sense in his Schumann. The composer himself, in a letter to his father, declared his B? Concerto, K 450, to be the most technically difficult he’d written to date, “a concerto to make one sweat,” he wrote. I don’t smell a drop of perspiration in Helmchen’s performance; his runs sound easily even, with every note perfectly weighted and given its due, while his chords, like punchy punctuation marks, articulate phrases and demarcate musical periods with a stride of confidence and authority.

If No. 15 represents the 28-year-old Mozart demonstrating a newfound concerto-writing assurance on two levels—one of demanding greater keyboard virtuosity and the other of endowing the woodwind instruments with an indispensable independence—No. 27 is about something else. One doesn’t usually speak of Mozart’s late works, as one does of Brahms’s, as being autumnal. At 35, Mozart was, after all, still a young man, and probably had no intuition of his rapidly approaching premature demise. Yet, this last piano concerto has about it a breadth and certain mellowness that have something in common with the yet-to-come Clarinet Concerto.

As Ronald Vermeulen’s album note puts it, “The [first] movement’s atmosphere—and for that matter, that of the entire work—is for the most part serene and lyrical, introverted and melancholy.” And later, Vermeulen quotes musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen, who wrote, both the last piano concerto and the Clarinet Concerto are private statements: “The form is never exploited for exterior effect; the tone is always one of intimacy.”

Unlike No. 15, No. 27 is not a concerto for “show,” and Helmchen’s whole demeanor at the keyboard changes to one of poignant tenderness for one of the most sensitive and touching performances of this work I’ve heard.

Mozart provided his own cadenzas for both these concertos, and Helmchen, thankfully, plays them. I say this with a sense of relief, for there have been some real “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” cadenzas written for Mozart’s concertos, like the one Fauré composed for the C-Minor Concerto (No. 24), and which Vassily Primakov imprudently chose for his recording with Simon Gaudenz and the Odense Symphony Orchestra on Bridge.

It wouldn’t be right to conclude this review without mentioning the beautiful contributions in orchestral playing offered by the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra led by Gordan Nikoli?, and the gorgeous multichannel sound offered by PentaTone’s SACD recording. There are many wonderful recordings of Mozart’s concertos to choose from—personal favorites include those by Murray Perahia, Robert Casadesus, Alfred Brendel, Richard Goode, Christian Zacharias, and Matthias Kirschnereit—but Martin Helmchen easily earns a highly valued place among them. Very strongly recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

Product Description:

  • Release Date: November 19, 2013

  • UPC: 827949050862

  • Catalog Number: PTC5186508

  • Label: Pentatone

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Period: ""

  • Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

  • Conductor: Gordan Nikolic

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Netherlands Chamber Orchestra

  • Performer: Martin Helmchen