After having delved into the mysteries of Mozart for more than four decades, I always look forward to a new recording of the music that has informed so much of my understanding of our most universal art. This two-disc set, the collective ingredients—pianist Vassily Primakov, conductor Scott Yoo, the Odense Symphony Orchestra, engineer Viggo Mangor and recording wizard Adam Abeshouse—offered the promise of some extraordinary music making only to have the polished result sound better than it ought to feel.
In any work from the Classical period, the devil is most certainly in the details with the greatest challenge being to convincingly decipher and share what Mozart wrote and—perhaps more importantly—what he implied.
In the case of the opening work (KV 491) the concerns emanated from the lack of meeting of all minds regarding a comprehensive articulation strategy and being largely left adrift regarding the natural weight/wait of the notes in support of the seen but seldom “heard” harmonic plan.
In the “Allegro,” Yoo and his charges fell into the trap of inadvertently putting more emphasis on the end-of-bar sixteenths than their intended targets (when forte and beyond—perhaps due to bowing, at least for the strings—this problem disappeared), giving the marvellous introduction unwanted edges instead of an overarching flow towards the drama to come. Then the main cadential points were more played through than realized, leaving the subtleties of the composer’s incredibly structured architecture for another day. The annoying habit of clipping consecutive legati (so at odds with other occasions where dots or rests demand the lifts), likewise diminished the artistic liquidity.
Once Primakov entered the soundscape hope was renewed. The early lines were pure gold and the bar lines magically, happily disappeared. An extra-dry second clarinet was the only fly in the winds’ ointment in this, the most generous scoring of Mozart’s piano concerto canon. The Gabriel Fauré cadenza was ideally suited to Primakov’s nature and was a marvel at every turn of its highly romanticized material, adding more passion to the, thus far, decidedly bloodless proceedings than had been expected.
Beautifully sung from the first note, overall the “Larghetto” seemed oddly vertical due in part to a tempo that more plodded than pulsed during the orchestral interventions and commentaries. The closing variations were the most successful of the three.
Without doubt, the absolute highlight of KV 503 was the delectable “Andante,” producing the most homogenous offerings from the woodwinds of the set. Primakov was a compelling model of delicacy and thoughtful discretion, having the courage to let the music appear to halt before moving himself and his colleagues forward to greater heights.
Razor-sharp links when the orchestra rejoins the soloist would have improved the outer movements (George Szell’s expertise in that difficult department always comes to mind); when Yoo manages to successfully mine the sense of occasion—notably right off the bat in the “Allegro maestoso,” the latter word saying all—he will move into the special ranks of maestros extraordinaire. The Hummel/Primakov cadenza brought the best of both worlds to the fore even as the notion of trills as pedals that glue everything together would be taken and further expanded by Beethoven.
After threatening to morph into “Turkish March” from his opening hurrah in the Finale, Primakov delightfully scampered through the technical challenges even if the minutiae of his attacks and note lengths could only be approximated by those who answered. Special thanks to the melodic lines from the principal flute and oboe, the former being curiously more distant on the aural plane.
In the outer movements of the D Major concerto, you couldn’t seem to buy an ounce of crisp from Yoo and the orchestra, so that Primakov’s wonderfully introspective view never really had a chance to shine. Fortunately, the “Larghetto” was largely cut from the same cloth, making it the truly glorious highlight.
KV 595 followed in the same vein. This time, more contrast between the delightfully saucy bits and the much darker moments of the “Allegro” would have greatly improved the outcome. Primakov, incredibly, found the heady mix of anguish and joy in the dotted-rhythm clarion call but that subtle detail never found its voice beyond the keyboard. Mozart certainly had the last laugh by ordering up some measures of pizzicati, infusing a much-wanted element of dry amidst the piano’s beguiling legatos.
The French horns were most tenuous in their delicate offerings but not even that blemish could prevent the soloist from delivering the slow movement superbly: this study in apparent simplicity is a model for all others to emulate.
An invigorating second helping of joy permeated the closing “Allegro” where the translated notion of happy marvellously sent “fast” out of the room. Primakov’s playful returns to the theme can’t help but bring a grin to even the most exacting curmudgeon, leaving all listeners ready for more. No better way than that to say adieu to Volume I! JWR