Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 7 for Two Pianos and Orchestra in F, K242
Concerto Movement for Piano, Violin and Orchestra in D, K315f (fragment completed by Robert Levin)
Piano Concerto No. 10 for Two Pianos and Orchestra in E-flat, K365
Robert Levin & Ya-Fei Chuang (fortepianos)
Bojan Čičić (violin)
Academy of Ancient Music/Laurence Cummings
rec. 2022, St Jude on the Hill, London
Academy of Ancient Music AAM043 
This disc of Mozart’s concertos for multiple pianos is a total delight, and the music is only part of the reason for that.
It’s the most important one, however, so let’s start with that. The first thing you notice is the sheer beauty of the sound, which is by no means a given when you’re dealing with historical instruments. The orchestral sound from the Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) is beautifully judged and elegantly shaped by conductor Laurence Cummings, and the recording engineers have done a first-rate job of both capturing the sound and creating a sense of space around it: London’s church of St Jude on the Hill is a well-established recording venue, but I’ve rarely heard it sound so characterful as here. The strings are placed solidly at the forefront of the sound, but not intrusively, and the sense of air around the sound gives it a dainty, dancerly quality that is most refreshing. Overall there is a pleasant bustle to the outer movements, and the fortepianos have a very winning twinkle to them, too.
I’ve previously expressed my scepticism of the fortepiano’s sound, but that reckoned without either these particular instruments or the tongue-in-cheek wit of fortepianist Robert Levin. It’s often difficult to pick out which of the two soloists is Levin and which is his collaborator (and wife) Ya-Fei Chuang, but isn’t that the point in collaborative concerto adventures like these? Writing in this disc’s excellent booklet, producer John McMunn described Levin’s desire to “push back against the increasing standardisation of interpretation and the abandonment of any real agency on the part of the performer.” He certainly achieves that here with a wry sprinkle of wit in all of the playing. There is a lovely sense of interplay between the two fortepianos, and they are balanced together very well in the stereoscape. The cadenzas, all of which are Mozart’s, sound just showy enough, and the soloists feel very much like part of the texture rather than spotlit stars.
The Concerto for Three Pianos is given in Mozart’s own arrangement for two pianos, details of which are explored in one of the booklet essays. It works very well for all of the reasons above, and I confess that not once while listening to it did I stop to think that a third keyboard would have been an improvement. The first movement has that dancerly tone to it, while there is soft-focused beauty to the slow movement, and the finale has the colour of a playful galant, carrying a sense of refined sophistication but with a twinkle in its eye.
The Concerto for Two Pianos is given in the version without trumpets and drums, but there is never any lack of grandeur or scale with that. The orchestral sound bristles with energy right from the off – you really notice the oboes amidst the strings – and the pianos meet them like sparring partners. The slow movement feels like an exercise in gentle refinement, over which the pianos sprinkle some delightful tonal colour, and the finale is a buoyant joy, surely the most ambitious and successful concerto finale that Mozart had written up to that point in his career.
The disc’s USP is the concerto movement K315f, completed by Levin himself. Its fragment dates from Mozart’s Mannheim period in 1778, and Levin’s realisation of it is a total winner. There is a music-box delicacy to its opening but it’s quickly swept up in a larger scale tutti passage bristling with trumpets, drums and martial grandeur. The overall effect is terrific, carrying a scale and sweep that you just don’t associate with the young Mozart. The solo violin part is played with style and panache by the AAM’s leader, Bojan Čičić, and he makes it sound ripe and agile, beautifully matched with the sound of Levin’s fortepiano. Their double cadenza is an ear-tickling treat, and the disc is worth hearing for this movement alone.
I began by saying that the music was only one reason why this disc was so delightful. The presentation is certainly another one. I haven’t previously heard any discs from the AAM’s own label, so wasn’t prepared for how much attention they had lavished on the packaging. The disc is presented in a hard-backed booklet whose sixty pages are packed full of lucid and engaging essays from authors including the Mozart authority Cliff Eisen and the critic and historian of the AAM, Richard Bratby. The cover art by Paul Klee is lovingly presented and explained in the text, and the technical specifications even include the ages of all the instruments played by the members of the orchestra. In an age of streaming and downloading, this is a welcome reminder of the power of the physical object.
Lastly, but perhaps just as importantly, this disc plays its part in a thirty-year old vision. The AAM and Robert Levin began their project to record all of Mozart’s piano concertos back in 1994 with the late Christopher Hogwood on Decca. The project was dropped at its halfway point, but the AAM’s own label picked it up after lockdown and they’re now almost at an end: two discs remain and they will be released in 2024, so there’s a palpable sense of excitement as they near the finish line. Licensing reasons might make a complete set difficult, but if it ever appears then I’ll be first in line to hear it, if the quality of this instalment is anything to go by. Listening to it gave me an hour packed with pleasure. 2024 is but a young year, but this is easily the best disc I’ve heard in it so far.
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