Recording of the Week New volumes in Hyperion's Classical Piano Concerto and Romantic Violin Concerto series
To say that Franz Xaver Mozart had a lot to live up to is probably my underestimation of the week – Wolfgang Amadeus’s precocious but modest youngest son prompted both his mother and his teacher Antonio Salieri to express sentiments along the lines of acorns not falling far from trees when he was barely into puberty. The long shadows cast by his father’s premature and impoverished death meant that much of his career was devoted to teaching, and though never as dizzyingly prolific as Mozart Senior (after all, few people were) his relatively modest output was wide-ranging and attractive; the two piano concertos presented on Volume Three of Hyperion’s Classical Piano Concerto series suggest that his gravestone inscription (‘May the name of his father be his epitaph’) is characteristically self-effacing but perhaps only part of the story.
For me, the most distinctive and memorable work on the disc is his second, E flat Piano Concerto, written in 1818, melodically rich throughout and more overtly virtuosic than its predecessor – it came as no great surprise to learn that of the three concertos featured here (the third, by Muzio Clementi, is comparatively slight yet immediately appealing) this is the one which has received significant previous outings on record, including one from Sebastian Knauer under Philippe Entremont. The assertive opening theme, with its ascending octave leap and quasi-fugal development throughout the orchestral exposition, brings the beginning of the Haffner Symphony irresistibly to mind and established itself as a not unwelcome earworm for me after just one or two hearings!
Indeed, the influence of his father’s later keyboard concertos continues to be keenly felt throughout, particularly in the way he handles the wind writing. There are odd moments, too, which also call Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto (which predates it by nearly a decade) to mind - though I’ve not been able to uncover any evidence that Franz Xaver would have heard the work at this stage in his career, given that he was based in Lemberg (now Lviv, in modern-day Ukraine) during the time of composition and was only just about to embark on the first European concert-tours which would bring him into contact with wider cultural influences.
All three works receive splendid advocacy from Howard Shelley (a stalwart of Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series, and also a tireless champion of Clementi’s solo piano music) and the incisive St Gallen Symphony Orchestra, who offer especially piquant wind playing and some delightfully teasing rubato as the theme reappears time and again in the Rondo finale of the E flat concerto.
Also newly-released on Hyperion is the twentieth instalment of their Romantic Violin Concerto series, which makes a very persuasive case for the G minor Concerto of the Polish composer Zygmunt Stojowski, premiered in Paris in 1899 and dedicated to his teacher and muse Władysław Górski.
Stojowski’s compatriot Bartłomiej Nizioł (who’s previously done sterling work exploring lesser-known Polish repertoire on the Dux label) performs it with palpable affection and a lightness and sweetness of tone tempered with moments of astringency that prevent everything from becoming too saccharine. The declamatory G minor flourishes of the opening perhaps owe a little to Max Bruch’s evergreen Concerto in the same key, whilst there are whispers of Tchaikovsky in the lush D major slow movement and the alla polacca finale; to paraphrase the old adage, if you like these two warhorses then you’ll find plenty to enjoy here.
Wieniawski’s dazzling Fantasy on Themes from Gounod’s Faust, which sparkles like the jewels which so enchant the opera’s heroine, is perhaps more of a known quantity. Whilst it hasn’t quite achieved the popularity of Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy in the ‘virtuosic operatic pot pourris for violin and orchestra’ category, it’s popped up on a number of previous collections of encores and showpieces and it’s easy to see why – Wieniawski does some gorgeous things with the love-scene music, and Méphistophélès’ ‘Hymn to the Golden Calf’ bristles with a demonic energy that foreshadows Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre, composed nearly a decade later. Devil’s trills indeed.
Howard Shelley (piano & conductor), Sinfonieorchester St Gallen
Available Format: CD
Bartłomiej Nizioł (violin), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Łukasz Borowicz
Available Format: CD