Andsnes and Musicians from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra explore the light and dark of Mozart’s genius


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart: Leif Ove Andsnes [piano], Musicians from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (Matthew Truscott [violin], Joel Hunter [viola], Frank-Michael Guthmann [cello]). Wigmore Hall, London 21.2.2020. (CSa)

Leif Ove Andsnes (c) Gregor Hohenberg

Mozart – Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor K478; Piano Trio in B K502; Fantasia in C minor K475; Piano Quartet No.2 in E K493

After their collaboration on Beethoven’s Journey, an epic worldwide tour of Beethoven’s five piano concertos, the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and members of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra have embarked on another major project: Mozart Momentum 1785/1786. Their aim is to explore, through recordings and performance, the driving forces of Mozart’s creativity during two extraordinarily productive years of composition. These were the years in which the barely 30-year-old composer redefined the genre of the piano concerto and wrote some of his most sublime chamber music. This included the Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor K478 written in 1785, and the Piano Trio in B K502 (1786) which comprised the first half of Wigmore Hall’s recital.

Mozart concentrates in the G minor Quartet all the virtuoso elements of his late piano concertos, with their technical complexity and subtle interplay between keyboard and strings. The effect is one of stately grandeur and intense intimacy. These contrasting qualities were reflected in the unsentimental, rigorous and deeply sensitive playing of Andsnes, and of the three equally gifted trio of MCO string players: Matthew Truscott, Joel Hunter and Frank-Michael Guthmann. The bold unison gesture which opens the quartet’s Allegro was played with rare passion, giving way to a finely nuanced and perfectly balanced conversation between piano and trio. The first movement’s tempestuous coda was calmed by a sensuously played Andante, and concluded triumphantly with a joyously tuneful Rondo.

The Trio K502 is a small masterpiece created shortly after the first and unsuccessful staging of The Marriage of Figaro. Mozart, departing from the traditional predominance given to the piano in his earlier trios, gives equal weight to the strings. In Truscott’s hands, the bravura violin passages in the first movement Allegro radiated brightly throughout, contributing to, but never dominating, the vibrant discussion with the other instruments.  The extended Larghetto flowed sweetly, and the concluding Allegretto was played with crystalline purity of tone.

After the interval, Andsnes returned to the platform sans strings to perform Mozart’s Fantasia for Piano in C minor K475. Schnabel famously described Mozart’s piano music as ‘too easy for beginners, too difficult for artists’.  Overcoming all such difficulties, Andsnes gave a technically seamless performance, which peeled away the work’s apparent simplicity to reveal all its complexity. Mozart’s Fantasia bursts out of the shackles of late eighteenth century musical convention, its dramatic impact and constantly shifting emotional range anticipating late Beethoven and beyond. Andsnes’s account was suitably spare, unsentimental and brooding. He gave the stark descending octaves of the introduction an almost premonitory dimension. The sun shone briefly during his exposition of the work’s lyrical passages, but was soon eclipsed by a dark and daring reading of the stormy Allegro section.

All three string players returned to the platform for the last item on the programme, the Piano Quartet No.2 in E K493. After the glowering darkness of the Fantasia, this quartet provided a genial and melodic contrast. The Allegro was marked by superb ensemble playing by the four musicians – a convivial and evenly balanced conversation between violin, viola and cello, against a background of rippling keyboard arpeggios. A rich and warm Larghetto was followed by a graceful, dancing Allegretto, providing a restorative conclusion to the published programme. Fortunately, the evening did not end there. The appreciative audience was rewarded with a finely played encore: the slow movement of the Piano Quartet in C minor written by the 15-year-old Beethoven in 1785. Despite his youth, Beethoven, like his older contemporary Mozart, was forging the path that music would take over the next century.

Chris Sallon


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