Mozart: Piano Concertos No. 18 in B flat, K456; Piano Concerto No. 19 in F, K459

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COMPOSERS: Mozart
LABELS: Teldec Das Alte Werk
WORKS: Piano Concertos No. 18 in B flat, K456; Piano Concerto No. 19 in F, K459
PERFORMER: Andreas Staier (fortepiano); Concerto Köln
CATALOGUE NO: 8573-80676-2
In the CD booklet, Andreas Staier describes the F major Concerto as essentially ‘light and humouristic’. And his performance is as good as his word. At tearaway tempi the outer movements quiver with the impudent energy of opera buffa. Propelled by Staier’s own upfront continuo playing, the opening tutti of the first movement dances as if on hot embers, while soloist and orchestra throw themselves headlong into the dizzy imbroglio of the finale, where Mozart virtuosically combines comic opera with fugue. Using a fine copy of a 1785 Walter fortepiano, Staier plays both movements with his characteristic flair and fantasy, ornamenting modestly but tellingly, and improvising witty lead-ins at the fermatas in the finale. The edgy impetuosity of soloist and orchestra even spills over into the central Allegretto, dubbed by Staier an ‘ironical serenade’ – a valid view, although here I miss the poetry and grace caught in the more poised period-instrument performance from Robert Levin and Christopher Hogwood (L’Oiseau-Lyre). I also prefer the balance on the Levin recording, which mikes the fortepiano less closely and gives more prominence to Mozart’s glorious woodwind writing.

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The more intimate and – in the G minor Andante variations – elegiac B flat Concerto throws up similar contrasts between the two soloists: Staier more jaunty and ebullient, Levin more leisurely and ruminative, shaping the solo part more fastidiously and ornamenting more freely. Staier’s volatility and the rawer, more bucolic sonorities of Concerto Köln are certainly exciting on their own terms; and his gleefully irreverent, no-holds-barred finale makes Levin seem more than a tad sober in comparison. So if you want these concertos together in period performances, the choice is between the elegance and chamber-musical refinement of Levin/Hogwood and the spontaneity and bristling nervous energy of Staier. If Levin gets my vote, by a whisker, I certainly shouldn’t want to be without these combustible new performances. Richard Wigmore