Review by Jerry Dubins
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)
To begin with, I’d like to commend pianist Rasa Vitkauskaite for her self-authored album essay and notes, which are easily among the most scholarly, thoroughly documented, reference-cited, and footnoted efforts for a CD booklet I’ve seen. One need hardly be surprised, therefore, that the same meticulousness and attention to detail that Vitkauskaite brings to her writing she also brings to her playing.
Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20—only one of two among the composer’s 14 mature concertos to be cast in a minor key—and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3—the only one among all of his concertos (which are far fewer in number) to be cast in a minor key—are not strangers on disc. They’ve been coupled before, though perhaps a more common and germane pairing for the Beethoven is Mozart’s other minor-key concerto, the No. 24 in C Minor. Not only do they share the same key, but the principal triadic motive that propels the first movement of the Mozart is closely mirrored by a similar triadic motive in the Beethoven.
More than likely, Beethoven was familiar with most, if not all, of Mozart’s 14 mature concertos, Nos. 14 through 27, which were composed between 1784 and 1791. Beethoven’s C-Minor Concerto dates from 1800, certainly late enough for Beethoven to have heard and perhaps even played Mozart’s Nos. 20 and 24 himself. His encounter with those scores would have been strong incentives—not that he needed any—for Beethoven to make his own contribution to the Sturm und Drang concerto repertoire.
Recordings of both of these concertos number in the hundreds, and having heard only a small percentage of them, it would be foolhardy of me to assert that Vitkauskaite is a top contender in either of them. I can say, though, that in the Mozart, composed in 1785, she glimpses in her reading the swirling minor-key episodes that would come two years later in Don Giovanni. In other words, Vitkauskaite grasps, appreciates, and projects the operatic element in the concerto’s music, reflecting what she says in her album note: “By the ripe old age of 30, and having solidly established his reputation as a piano virtuoso and composer, Mozart turned back to his original reason for moving to Vienna and spent the last five years of his life focusing more heavily once again on operas and symphonies.” I would add, though it hardly seems necessary, that the composer’s last five years also saw the creation of some of his greatest masterpieces that were not operas or symphonies.
While personal longtime favorites in Mozart’s piano concertos have been Alfred Brendel with Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Murray Perahia with the English Chamber Orchestra, and Robert Casadesus with Szell in a mix of recordings, some with the Cleveland Orchestra, some with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, I find that Vitkauskaite’s way with Mozart’s No. 20 is every bit as probing, dramatic, and satisfying as those named above, as well many others I’ve come to know.
As recently as 44:3, I gave a rave review and urgent recommendation to Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s cycle of Beethoven’s piano concertos, singling out the light he achieves between the notes which allows for the impacts of sforzandos and accents to ring out with sharp bite. And I took special note of his entrance in the Third Concerto, in which the double scales weren’t shmeared and every note was clear and evenly weighted.
Vitkauskaite’s entrance may not be quite as dramatically arresting, but she brings other distinctions to her performance of the Beethoven, chief among which—as I noted in a review of her solo debut album in 38:2—are her penetrating musical insight and her ability to commune with the composer and her audience in a way that feels conversational. We know how and the degree to which Beethoven broke with the past and asserted his independence. His Piano Concerto No. 3, in any number of ways, is not Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, and any pianist can call our attention to what the differences are. But Vitkauskaite wants us to hear the similarities. As she notes in her booklet, “Mozart was Beethoven’s ultimate teacher.”
Beyond Vitkauskaite’s playing, which, by all measures, attains the highest degrees of both technical finish and interpretive integrity, what adds immeasurably to these performances and makes them special is the leadership from the podium of Jonathan Cohler. Whether with the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra in the Mozart or the Anima Musicae Chamber Orchestra in the Beethoven, Cohler sees his role and that of the orchestra in these works not as accompanists, but as partners fully engaged in an equal and balanced dialogue with the soloist. Cohler’s approach to these scores tells us that both Mozart and Beethoven were on their way to creating a greater interdependence and synthesis between the solo and orchestral roles when they wrote these concertos. Mozart may not have lived quite long enough to reach the final goal, but in his Fourth and “Emperor” Concertos Beethoven did.
Regardless of how many recordings of these two concertos you already have on your shelf, I’d strongly urge you to make room for this one. Jerry Dubins