INKPOT#105: MOZART Concerto No.25. BEETHOVEN Concerto No.1. Argerich/Various (EMI)
Piano Concerto No. 25 in C, K. 503
Netherlands Chamber Orchestra conducted by Szymon Goldberg
Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C, Op. 15
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Heinz Wallberg
MARTHA ARGERICH piano
EMI Classics 56974
by Jonathan Yungkans
If it is, indeed, true that in various epochs certain stereotypes have come to be associated with certain keys, then we should assemble all the masterpieces set in any given key and compare their prevailing moods.
– Robert Schumann, “Characteristics of the Keys” (1835)
The bonanza of Martha Argerich discs from EMI continues with this “radiant and life-affirming C major of life,” as the liner notes call this release. EMI has gone digging in the rich mine of Argerich live recordings – the Mozart from 1978, the Beethoven from 1992 – unearthing at least one nugget of great worth, and giving us the priceless opportunity to compare these two works side by side.
The Mozart performance is pure gold, which matches the concerto itself. Dating from 1786, K. 503 completes a cycle of 12 concertos begun in 1784 and shows Mozart not only at the height of his powers as a composer, but at his most subtle and complex. Even more than in many of Mozart’s late works, there is a constant subtle interplay of light and shade, cheerfulness and tragedy, with no one mood dominant for long.
The opening Allegro alternates between martial and festive airs, with a number of harmonic and expressive ambiguities appearing throughout, including something relatively new for Mozart – a number of unmodulated transitions from major to minor and back again. These transitions are especially noticeable in the development, where a secondary theme, a march sounding surprisingly like the French revolutionary song “La Marseillaise,” flits back and forth between a number of major and minor tonalities within a handful of bars, while Mozart enriches the texture with canonic interplay between piano and orchestra. We are kept guessing as to where exactly this music is going, the prevailing tone kept in suspense even into the movement’s final bars.
The Adagio that follows is more austere than in many of Mozart’s other concertos. Calm but not entirely serene, it is formal sounding and at the same time a little mysterious, with the piano adding half-lights of brightness here and there. The Finale begins with a theme taken from his opera Idomeneo, but we are constantly surprised. The music moves into the minor key sooner than expected, and goes from there to a magnificently songful passage for piano, accompanied by cellos and bases and joined by the flute, oboe and bassoon. The rapture of this passage does not last for long before it dissolves into passion and heartache, and we are plunged just as suddenly back into the high spirits that began this movement.
Argerich’s alert and sensitive playing, matching every nuance of this music as though she were improvising it on the spot, is paired with equally charged support from the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra under Szymon Goldberg. There is also a poise to her playing here that is most welcome and appropriate – quite different from the huntress quality in her performance of K. 466 with Alexandre Rabinovich and the Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto (Teldec 98407 – full-price). If there were doubts in anyone’s mind about Argerich as a Mozart player, this performance should help dispel them.
The coupling of K. 503 with the Beethoven First Piano Concerto on this disc is apt, and not just for Argerich’s performance. Not only are both concertos in the same key, but according to Michael Steinberg in his book The Concerto, the march theme in the Allegro of K. 503 is similar in some respects to the opening theme of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. Beethoven openly admired these concertos, though Mozartean subtlety was usually the last thing on Beethoven’s mind when writing his own works.
Even without Mozart’s delicacy, Beethoven capitalized and expanded upon several compositional elements in K. 503 in his First Piano Concerto. Most obvious is the enlarged scale, which Mozart had been working toward in his works – according to Steinberg, Beethoven’s First was probably the largest concerto the Viennese public had heard up to that time. Like Mozart, Beethoven allows the piano to enter with an entirely different idea than introduced by the orchestra, but unlike Mozart, it is an idea to which he never returns.
Also, not only are the abrupt harmonic transitions and sudden shifts in tone with which Mozart experimented in K. 503 now part and parcel of Beethoven’s compositional style, but also his sense of surprise thematically, as evidenced at the beginning of this work. We have to wait until after the entrance of the soloist for the complete statement of the opening theme, and spend a considerable amount of time in the minor before we get there.
There are also some things in this work that Beethoven did not repeat later. The first-movement development, almost entirely in piano and pianissimo, forms a shimmering interlude of parallel chords and scales that restatements of the opening theme color but do not break. Mozart would have written something very similar. There are moments like this in Beethoven’s Third and Fourth Concertos (he wrote the Second Concerto before the First), but the First is the only one in which he devotes an entire development section to a reverie such as this. It is interesting to conjecture whether Beethoven would have continued in this vein had he not gone deaf.
It is extremely illuminating to have the Beethoven First and K. 503 on the same disc so we can note all these parallels for ourselves. Unfortunately, conductor Heinz Walberg is not on the same level as Szymon Goldgerg as a collaborator; his conducting of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is unimaginative and plodding. Argerich tries her best to shine, but her playing sparkles much less this time – a sliver of ore encased in rock. Even the sound is muddled and grayer than in the Mozart – surprising, since it was recorded digitally 14 years later.
Is this disc worth digging through the shelves for it? For the Mozart, yes – it is one of the best performances of K. 503 that I have heard. Should EMI find more recordings of Argerich and Goldberg deep in the Concertgebouw archives, I hope they do not hesitate to bring them up to the light of day so we can gauge their weight and value for ourselves.
- Schumann, Robert, with Henry Pleasants, trans. and ed., Schumann on Music: A Selection From the Writings (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1965), 62.
- Steinberg, Michael. The Concerto (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1998), 52-55, 313-317.
787:: 20.8.2000 Jonathan Yungkans