Unusual Mozart, Colorful Janáček and Dramatic Schumann

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Janáček, Schumann: Jonathan Biss (piano), Elias String Quartet, Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall, 10.4.2013 (SSM)

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 13 in C Major, K.415
Janáček: Concertino for Piano and Chamber Ensemble
Schumann: Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44

Elias String Quartet: Sara Bitlloch, Violin Donald Grant, Violin Martin Saving, Viola Marie Bitlloch, Cello

Carol McGonnell, Clarinet
Eric Reed, Horn
Brad Balliett, Bassoon

K.415 is part of a set of concerti (with K.413, K.414 and K.449) written by Mozart in the specific hope of earning a substantial recompense. He was successful in selling subscriptions to a series highlighting these concerti, but his later attempt to sell manuscript copies on a subscription basis failed. His advertisement for the scores was meant to appeal to both professionals and amateurs: professional musicians would perform them with an orchestra and purchase all the parts, while amateurs or less wealthy musicians would only need to buy the scores for piano and strings. Mozart may have underestimated the skill required for an amateur to perform the works and, as a result, this business venture did not succeed.

Even if there was not historical evidence from contemporary accounts, advertisements and Mozart’s letters that he had specifically intended these works to be playable by both amateur and professional, one only needs to look at the scores. The first movement of K.415 runs about 325 measures of which nearly 200 are for piano and strings without orchestral accompaniment. By comparison, Mozart’s final piano concerto, K. 595, which is not intended for amateurs, has about 300 measures of which just sixty-four are for piano and strings.

This was the first time I had heard a performance of a Mozart piano concerto performed with a string quartet instead of an orchestra, and it took a little time to adjust to this stripped-down version of K. 415. The opening sounded thin and scratchy. I certainly missed the horns and tympani that explode at the first forte of the orchestral version, but the lyrical second movement didn’t seem to want for lack of other instruments. Jonathan Biss might have lingered less on each note as if every one were packed with equal potency. The final movement has its best moments in the transitions back to the rondo’s refrain, but not having the orchestral accompaniment lessened the power of these expressive moments.

Janáček’s Concertino for Piano and Chamber Ensemble is imbued with the spirit of Czech folk music. It’s hard not to feel that this work had some influence on Bartók: in effect it is a “Concerto for Orchestra” without orchestra. While none of the movements here have the brazenness of Bartók, they each have their own quaint folksy quirkiness. Janáček’s subtitles for each piece connect them intentionally or not to the music of his opera The Cunning Little Vixen. The opening combination of piano and French horn plods in an off-balance manner that does seem appropriately named “grumpy hedgehog.” The frenetic piano and clarinet flit about in the second movement like the “fidgety squirrel” they are meant to represent. All the instruments join in to create the sounds of night creatures in the third movement, and a “scene from a fairly tale” ends this delightful work.

The performance of Schumann’s Piano Quintet continues Biss’s probing exploration of this composer. While I questioned some of his musicological comments and programming decisions in an earlier review, overall his performance of Schumann’s works is well thought out and convincingly played.

Although one hears Beethoven’s influence in the Piano Quintet, it really is Schubert whose music is behind it. This is most clearly heard in the lieder-like second movementʼs haunting funereal themes and the lyrical trio section of the Scherzo. If there is any Beethoven to be heard in this piece, it is the final movement’s dynamic lead-up to the ending fugue.

The Elias String Quartet played with agility and vigor, and the three additional musicians enthusiastically added their technical expertise to the colorful Janáček Concertino.

Stan Metzger