Francesco Piemontesi, SCO & Andrew Manze - Mozart: Piano Concertos 25 & 26 - Presto Classical

I first came across Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi a few years ago when I heard his recording of solo piano works by Mozart, and so I had hoped it was only a matter of time before he tackled some of the concertos. I'm delighted to say, therefore, that a new disc of two of them, due out next week, not only fully lives up to my high expectations but greatly surpasses them!

Accompanied by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Andrew Manze, Piemontesi chooses two concertos from relatively late in Mozart's life: No. 25 in C major K503, and No. 26 in D major K537, the latter known colloquially as the "Coronation" concerto because Mozart performed it in Frankfurt in October 1790, shortly after the coronation of Leopold II as Holy Roman Emperor.

Everything that I admired about Piemontesi's previous recording - intelligent, articulate phrasing, tidy passagework and absolute precision in the faster sections - is brought across to these performances. The C major concerto arguably contains some of Mozart's most virtuosic writing, but Piemontesi makes it all seem so effortless; I constantly marvelled at the flexibility of his left hand, with every semiquaver perfectly in place, performed with crystal clarity. It's such a graceful, clean sound, and never smudgy: if he does use any pedal then it's always extremely judiciously applied.

It's in the slow movements, however, where for me the true magic lies. Piemontesi introduces just a little bit of embellishment on some of the repeated passages, perhaps a few extra ornaments here or an added scale up to a high note there. These moments of improvisation are present in both concertos, and although some are more extensive than others, they never take you out of the moment, are always tastefully done, and stylistically remain in keeping with everything around them.

This spirit of elaboration adds so much to these performances and is, I think, quite the right decision to take: the last movement of the C major concerto in particular, by way of its Rondo structure where the main block of musical material returns several times, cries out for decoration in order to keep things fresh and to demonstrate the skill and virtuosity of the soloist.

In the case of the D major concerto, such invention is not only desired but positively required: the solo part in the autograph manuscript is not fully fleshed out, with, for instance, much of the material for the left hand missing. More than this, though, there is an historical precedent coming from the great man himself: Mozart was a frequent performer of his own concertos, and was known to introduce many such extemporisations in performance, even in concertos where the piano part in the manuscript already appears to be "finished".

As you'll know if you heard their award-winning discs of late Mozart symphonies from nearly ten years ago (conducted by Charles Mackerras), the Scottish Chamber Orchestra has great form when it comes to this music, and their performance here is, of course, immaculate. The horns, for instance, have just enough bite to make their presence felt without being overpowering. It seems to me that in these concertos Mozart makes the woodwind much more prominent than might be expected, and it's a pleasure to hear some refined contributions from the Scottish wind, not least some elegant bassoon playing. It's all beautifully shaped by Andrew Manze, always with imaginative, sensitive phrasing and allocation of dynamics, bringing the music to life most pleasingly. A recording to be treasured, for sure!

Presto Classical
11 August 2017