Review by Huntley Dent
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 20, K 4661. BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 32 • Rasa Vitkauskaite (pn); Jonathan Cohler, cond; 1Franz Liszt CO; 2Anima Musicae CO • ONGAKU 024-129 (67:38)
The Romantic era was entranced by the “great man” theory of history, which made titans and geniuses the driving force in human affairs, and there were enough titans around or just past—Goethe, Napoleon, Manzoni, Tolstoy—to keep the theory alive. It was only fitting that Mozart, the prevailing musical genius in Vienna, should meet the next genius in order to bless him personally, or better yet, prophetically. The 16-year-old Beethoven did in fact travel from Bonn to Vienna on a two-week visit in 1787 that included a meeting with Mozart. Did Mozart actually say, “Keep your eyes on him—someday he’ll give the world something to talk about?” Romantic legend would have it so, but in reality nothing that passed between them was recorded; neither ever mentioned the encounter.
But the existence of music-mad Vienna made the city a magnet for talent, and when Beethoven moved there permanently in 1792, he implicitly understood that he was next in line after Mozart and Haydn. Here Romantic notions crash to earth, because Beethoven spent the next 36 years bitterly complaining about the shallow, vain, fickle Viennese, and he had no great love for his one-time teacher, Haydn, either. As pianist Rasa Vitkauskaite points out in her extensive and informative program notes to this new release, the strongest link from Mozart to Beethoven wasn’t personal. It was the piano and the revolution in piano concertos that Mozart brought about.
Vitkauskaite makes a strong case for this link in two outstanding performances. Fifty years ago, if an LP had paired Mozart’s D-Minor Piano Concerto, K 466, and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, a message would have been underscored: Here is Mozart’s boldest, most dramatic piano concerto, a clear foreshadowing of Beethoven, next to the first example of Beethoven’s mature style in a piano concerto of equal boldness and drama. That’s no longer the prevailing view, as Fanfare readers know. Ironically, the fashion for period performance knocked both concertos off their heroic pedestals—today one is as likely to hear tinkly Beethoven as tinkly Mozart.
Vitkauskaite and conductor Jonathan Cohler bring a welcome restoration—these are large-scaled performances filled with musical passion. Mozart’s masterpiece from 1785 is in the same key as the overture to Don Giovanni and the Requiem; it no more deserves to be diminished in scale than those works are. Cohler and Vitkauskaite are longtime collaborators, and they are in firm agreement on this point. She plays the solo part as boldly as Rudolf Serkin, and he conducts with more dramatic force than George Szell in their Columbia Records account, where Mortimer H. Frank pointed to Serkin’s “chiseled cool, but assertive, clarity.” (Fanfare 6:3)
If you agree with their approach, as I wholeheartedly do, Vitkauskaite and Cohler deliver an ideal Mozart performance, abetted by beautiful playing from the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra and up-to-date engineering that combines inner detail with overall impact. The full dynamic range of the piano is vividly conveyed, as is the dynamic range of Mozart’s score. The Beethoven Third is also a minor-key concerto (C Minor) but without tragic implications. However, in the dramatic contour of the orchestral tutti that opens the first movement, Don Giovanni isn’t so far away. Cohler offers an orchestral part that is fully symphonic and beautifully shaped. He is best known as an acclaimed clarinetist, but his podium skills are impressive. Scholars know from a letter that Mozart wrote cadenzas for K 466, but they are lost. Here we get the Beethoven cadenzas, probably from 1809, that have become standard; they also remind us that he was an early champion of the D-Minor Concerto.
Serkin again comes to mind in his Beethoven Third Concerto with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic from the 1960s, a particular favorite of mine. This new reading rivals it for exuberance, high energy, charisma, and the heroic spirit of Beethoven’s middle period. The first-movement cadenza is thrilling in Vitkauskaite’s hands. I hasten to add that she and Cohler do not cut Mozart and Beethoven from the same cloth but attend to the characteristic style of each. The only possible objection I can foresee is that the slow movement of the Mozart is played with more directness than some listeners might prefer if they have an image of the music as delicately poised. But this isn’t to take away from the pianist’s legato line, which is as exemplary as the rest of her technique.
Vitkauskaite was born in Lithuania and trained there before further study in Italy and finally at Boston Conservatory. I think of Boston as my musical home town, and this release exemplifies the high level of teaching and performing in Boston and Cambridge, where both conductor and soloist have been major participants. I had no expectations, though, that this new release would be quite as superb as it turned out to be. Strongly recommended. Huntley Dent