Impressive new CD releases from cycles of Mozart’s piano sonatas and concertos reviewed by Norman Stinchcombe

Mozart Piano Sonatas Volume 6: Peter Donohoe (Somm Recordings) ★★★★★

This is the final instalment of Peter Donohoe’s survey of Mozart’s sonatas and I believe that Somm has saved the best for last. The series was recorded over two years but much of it, including this disc, was taped in sessions at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire in the summer of 2018. That intense programming, and the concentration it required, matches Donohoe’s muscular keyboard style; the series often having the feel of live performances, with playing of the moment. This reaches its apogee in Donohoe’s readings of the Fantasia in C minor, K.475 and the Sonata No.14 in C minor, which follows it and ends the disc as a fitting climax. The Fantasia is one of Mozart’s darkest proto-Romantic works and one the young Beethoven must have pondered deeply. Donohoe shrouds the opening in mist and cloud before its stormy eruption. Like András Schiff, but unlike Mitsuko Uchida, Donohoe resists the temptation to linger in the opening and his performance has tremendous volatility and dynamic thrust, qualities also to the fore in the succeeding sonata. Uchida marred her recording of that sonata by omitting the first movement’s repeat which Donohoe and Schiff rightly observed. They both gave outstanding performances but Somm’s recorded sound, airy and detailed, is much more attractive than that obtained in Decca’s boxy Studio 3. Donohoe’s preference for a lighter-sounding Bechstein over a Steinway pays dividends in the clean, trim classical lines of the Sonata No.4 in E-flat major, K.282 with its frolicking finale. My colleague Christopher Morley’s booklet notes are both informative and incisive. Anyone who underestimates  Sonata No.16 in C major, K.545 because Mozart (surely with tongue firmly in cheek) designated it as, “a little piano sonata for beginners”, should read his analysis and then hear Donohoe’s trenchant playing – no genteel tinkling here – and be prepared for a major re-evaluation.

Mozart Piano Concertos Volume 7: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Manchester Camerata / Gábor Takács-Nagy (Chandos) ★★★★★

Bavouzet’s series began in 2016 and his survey with the Manchester Camerata, under Gábor Takács-Nagy, has included a selection of operatic overtures, orchestral divertimenti, and chamber music for piano, with members of the orchestra, alongside Mozart’s mature keyboard concertos. The CDs are all recorded in Manchester’s Stoller Hall which Chandos claims is, “the most acoustically advanced concert hall in the country”. Hearing is believing and this recording, made last year, is of demonstration quality. There’s plenty of air around the instruments, lots of detail, a winning combination of clarity and warmth which match up with Bavouzet’s bright-toned Yamaha grand. We are also promised, “vivid and theatrical performance style”, inspired by Hungarian musicologist László Somfai’s research. Again, promise fulfilled. The disc opens with an on-it-toes ‘Le nozze di Figaro’ overture which has the whiff of greasepaint – it zips along at a tremendous pace with bubbling energy. Bavouzet is a man who doesn’t do ordinary. I found his Beethoven sonatas and concertos on Chandos enormously stimulating, challenging, occasionally eccentric but never dull. It’s the same here. In Mozart’s grand and imposing Concerto No. 25. in C major, for example, Bavouzet fills the first movement’s vacant cadenza slot with one by the young American pianist Kenneth Broberg. It uses the ‘Marseillaise’ because there’s a “tickling analogy between the first notes of the second theme”, says Bavouzet. Witty or an annoying anachronism? But in Concerto No. 24 in C minor Bavouzet’s choice of cadenzas by Mozart’s star pupil Hummel – “virtuosic and always extremely well structured…while never lapsing into the indulgence of excessive romanticism” – is spot on. This is a winning performance of Mozart’s most powerful and emotionally turbulent concerto. Tempi are swift but sensible, Takács-Nagy elicits alert playing from the Camerata with plenty of vital woodwind detail audible. A disc well worth exploring.

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