Melinda Bargreen | 19 SEP 2019
Does the world really need another recording of Mozart piano concertos? When the recording is good enough, the answer is “Yes” – as it is in this disc pairing two of Mozart’s most improvisatory late works for solo keyboard and orchestra.
This is not a recording for the historically minded purist who wants everything (instruments, strings, technique) exactly as it would have been in Mozart’s day. Historically informed performance, as the liner notes tell us, is “only one type of strategy for revealing what makes the music special.”
Here you will hear a modern orchestra and a modern piano, played in an unabashedly 21st-century style with all the subtlety, nuance, and power these instruments afford. Nonetheless, Orli Shaham takes it really easy on the sustaining pedal, always a wise choice in this repertoire. From the keyboard, Shaham takes the twisty chromaticism of both these concerti and gives full expressive depth to the mercurial variations in their third movements.
There’s a sense of playfulness and novelty about Shaham’s interpretations, particularly in the No. 17 (K.453), where the second-movement dialogue between the keyboard and the wind solos is particularly enjoyable. The final movement, with its jaunty theme inspired by the composer’s pet starling, is appropriately playful. (For an entertaining account of the starling’s musical contribution, music lovers may enjoy Lynda Haupt’s 2017 nonfiction book, “Mozart’s Starling” — Little, Brown and Company, 2017).
The darker K.491 gives Shaham plenty of interpretive scope (as well as some technical challenges), and the tricky third-movement variations are imaginatively characterized without any exaggerations or distortions. Pianists often err in this repertoire by focusing on the execution of all those speedy 16th-notes, but despite Shaham’s avowal in the liner notes that she found this movement difficult, the overall effect of her playing here has great lyricism and, at times, an almost Olympian serenity.
Richly scored, with prominent concertante passages featuring oboes and clarinets, the K.491 concerto has a wide emotional range but never quite escapes its lingering, tragic darkness. Conductor David Robertson and Shaham underscore this mood with extraordinary subtlety and a dynamic range that subsides to a mere thread of sound before rebounding in the energetic finale.
The ensemble level between soloist and orchestra is one of mutual support and accord (not surprising, since Shaham and Robertson are real-life marital partners). Shaham’s fluent technique and lyricism are beautifully matched by the orchestra, particularly by the principal wind players whose solo work so artfully answers that of the pianist. Pliant, fluid, and expert, the orchestra’s performance here fully justifies the high reputation of the St. Louis Symphony and its music director. ■