Album review: A marvellous Mozart discovery with Andsnes and Mahler Chamber Orchestra

Mozart Momentum 1785, the new album by Leif Ove Andsnes and Mahler Chamber Orchestra on Sony Classical is a case in point of a thoroughly masterful work of art. Be it programming, performance, engineering or liner notes, the new two-disc set does an exquisite job in tracing down Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s creative watershed, the astonishing year of 1785.

As contextualized in the liner notes and made evident by the riveting sounding reality of the works recorded for the album, Mozart’s keyboard music, or more specifically, his conception of the piano concerto, went through a substantial transformation in the course of the three forays into the genre the composer set forth to write and introduce to his Vienna audiences within that one creative year.

Whist we may lack detailed information on the actual process of Mozart composing his works, we have dates for the completion of the most of his works, for the composer had the habit of carefully entering them into the catalogue of his works. Thus, we know that the three concertos on the album, K. 466, K. 467 and K. 482, were completed on 10 February, 9 March and 16 December, respectively. In addition to the concerti, the chronologically ordered double-album also includes the Fantasia, K. 475, completed on 20 May, the Piano Quartet in G minor, K. 478, dating from 16 October as well as the Masonic Funeral Music, for which the actual date of completion is obscured, somewhat, but it’s first performance took place on 17 November.

The first disc offers a generous pairing of the Concertos in D minor, K. 466 and C major, K. 467, whereas the joyfully diverse second CD opens with the solo Fantasia, followed by the Quartet and, as an orchestral interlude, the Masonic Funeral Music, and concluding with the Concerto in E-flat. The overall dramaturgy of the album results in the most captivating arch of two hours and sixteen minutes of music-making at the highest level.

A marvellously contrasting pair, the Concertos in D minor and C major constitute the most fabulous demonstration of Mozart’s peerless musical imagination. Disposing with the idea of aristocratic entertainment, Mozart sets out to redesign the whole concertante architecture in the Concerto in D minor, where the soloist and the orchestra often embark on different paths, paving the way for the central movement of Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4 in G major, which was to follow twenty years later, in 1805-06.

In similar vein, the Concerto in C major is not simply a sunlit counterpart to its predecessor, but, in fact, a study of contrasts, sharp and sublime, between not only the upbeat outer movements and the contemplative central Andante, but also within each movement. On the new album, both works come off beautifully, with Andsnes and the members of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra teaming up in a compelling musical vision, thoroughly shared in dramaturgy and fine detail.

In genuinely Mozartean manner, the concertos are directed from the keyboard by Andsnes, with the orchestra joining their soloist as a large ensemble of chamber musicians, providing essential contribution to the substantial virtuosity and finesse of the performances. On the keyboard, Andsnes makes full use of the lyrical potential of the modern piano, while retaining the sublime clarity of the late nineteenth-century instrument. Dexterous and invigorating, with poetic undercurrents, the solo lines soar with expressive intensity and profound beauty.

These qualities are further examined in Andsnes’s wonderful performance of the Fantasia, which sets the mood perfectly for the second disc. An illuminated twelve-minute sonic journey, the Fantasia is clad in a fascinating mixture of brilliance and contemplation, resulting in a marvellous study of the expressive spectrum of a solo keyboard.

The Piano Quartet, in its turn, provides the listener with a multitude of fine-tuned musical lines, woven into gorgeous fabric of chamber music. Here Andsnes and three section leaders from the MCO, Matthew Truscott, Joel Hunter and Frank-Michael Guthmann come up with the most inspired music-making, reminding us, once again, the unique impact of a top-class chamber ensemble, caught in an utmost communicative act of performance.

In the Quartet, Mozart’s keyboard writing is again full of expressive brilliance, paired with passages of lyrical contemplation and rippling joy. The emotional and textural scopes of the score are investigated in full, giving rise to a fascinatingly gripping outing. In the context of the album, it is also fascinating to see, how Mozart’s musical ideas carry from one genre to another, bearing delightful family resemblance, while lending themselves into distinct idioms with apparent fluidity and naturalness.

Following the Quartet, the brief, dark-hued orchestral canvas of Masonic Funeral Music constitutes a deeply moving interlude. Scored for an intriguing mixture of two oboes, clarinet, three basset horns, contrabassoon, two horns and strings, the six-minute piece evokes an absolutely unique soundscape, one of superimposed pitch-dark sonic clouds slowly moving across the weeping sky.

A formidable musical moment, the performance by Mahler Chamber Orchestra results in intense meditation, both thought-provoking and deeply moving. Mozart’s miraculously varied palette of sonic darkness is brought to sounding reality with remarkable sensitivity and striking expressive momentum, all bound to the sublime overall musical arch.

As a wondrous opus summum, the Concerto in E-flat provides the album with the perfect closing. One of Mozart’s most extended concertos, the scoring includes a solo flute, two clarinets, making their first appearance in the composer’s piano concertos, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings, alongside a solo keyboard part of substantial virtuosity, rhythmic flamboyance and vivid lyricism.

Hearing the concerto in the context of the album, primed by the five preceding works, the long-held lines of Mozart’s musical ideas and their development becomes perhaps more evident than usually in a single performance. Against the backdrop of his astounding creative output of 1785, the Concerto in E-flat appears as a crown jewel, integrating gestures from the two earlier concertos as well as the Fantasia and the Quartet into its keyboard part par excellence. Also apparent in the slow movement in particular, some of the darkness of the Masonic Funeral Music has found its way into the concerto too.

With virtues shared with the previous performances, the concerto is given a luminous treatment by Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. The musical canvas is unveiled with abundance of detail, all bound together within a solid musical architecture, clad in resplendent music-making.

The orchestral repertoire is recorded in sessions at the Philharmonie Berlin in November 2020, whereas the Fantasia and the Quartet are caught on disc at the Sendesaal Radio Bremen in February of the same year. On both occasions, the Sony team serves the performers well with their focused engineering, capturing both the sublimity and the roar of Andsnes and the members of the MCO with vigorous soundscape, ever beautifully layered and immaculately balanced.

The recordings endorse the rich sonorities of the orchestral sections, while seamlessly blending with the solo piano lines. To be followed with Mozart Momentum 1786 later this year, the present album is certainly one of the finest disc presentations issued in 2021, by far.

Mahler Chamber Orchestra

Leif-Ove Andsnes, piano and conductor

Matthew Truscott, violin

Joel Hunter, viola

Frank-Michael Guthmann, cello

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in D minor, K. 466 (1785)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in C major, K. 467 (1785)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Fantasia for Piano in C minor, K. 475 (1785)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Quartet for Piano, Violin, Viola and Violoncello in G minor, K. 478 (1785)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Masonic Funeral Music, K. 477 (K. 479a) (1785)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in E-flat Major, K. 482 (1785)

Recorded at Philharmonie, Berlin, 8-10 November 2020 (K. 466, K. 467, K. 477 & K. 482) and Sendesaal Radio Bremen 21-25 February 2020 (K. 475 & K. 478)

Sony Classical 19439742462 (2021), 2 CDs

© Jari Kallio

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