Piano Concertos 11, 12 & 13

Matyas Novak Piano
Wihan Quartet

Nimbus Alliance NI6419
Full Price

The Review

When Mozart arranged these three early concertos for piano quintet, it was a smart move. It enabled him to show his prowess as an innovative keyboard player to patrons who could not afford a full band and to perform with gifted (but wealthy) amateurs in a normal salon.

Since Mozart published these works himself, he also had an eye on potential sales. It was more, though, than a good piece of business. Turning the concertos into chamber music gives them a wholly different perspective, drawing attention to the detail of the accompanying string parts, something that can get lost in the orchestral versions.

The string parts are not especially difficult but they are beautifully crafted and Mozart knew that he would be lucky if he had time for more than one rehearsal, often with players he did not know, on his travels or when performing in Viennese society. In these arrangements he could shine, taking all the complicated passage work, while the string quartet adopted the role of serious accompanist. In the inner slow movements, when the piano is being less of a show-off, the music achieves the sort of glorious introversion he was starting to find in his operatic arias at the time (early 1780s), particularly in the Andante of No 12 (K414, 387a).

Mozart and his customers would have been playing on fortepianos, of course, and this would have added to the integration of the sound. Matyas Novak is not. This need not matter but he is playing a very bright and brittle modern grand in Prague’s Martinu Hall. The producer has highlighted the piano still further, putting it in opposition to the beautifully mellow sound of the Wihan Quartet, enormously experienced and sensitive players. If the purpose of the recording is to demonstrate Novak’s pianistic skill (which was often Mozart’s point) it is effective. This up and coming young player articulates his part with prowess. The trouble is that the skewed balance of the recording makes him sound as if he is intruding into the quartet’s space in the outer movements like an annoying adolescent who keeps interrupting the adults’ conversation: too strident, too impatient.

The performances themselves are well worth hearing and it is surprising that the arrangements do not surface more often. I would enjoy them more if the mics were placed differently and the pianist could be allowed to be heard with greater subtlety.