Review: Mozart Piano Concertos 21 & 22

Jonathan Biss

It is hard to write a structurally informative programme note for two classical concertos without drifting into the kind of the stuffy detachment which transports readers back to the ink-stained textbooks of their youth. Jonathan Biss's notes, therefore, are deeply pleasurable. The piano in K467's opening movement, for instance, is ''…a brilliant, quixotic protagonist. It establishes itself as a prima donna straight off, declining to enter at the formal close of the tutti, instead waiting to be coaxed…''. Now, if the poetry of that hasn't made you fall head over heels with the as-yet untasted music, then your heart must be made of stone. Biss certainly knows how to string an enticing sentence together. The good news is that he plays as he writes, with a deep passion that produces rather than forfeits eloquence along the way.

Mozart wrote these concertos in 1786, only a few months apart, during an extraordinarily prolific and successful period. These were two of eleven piano concertos written within the space of only two years, and their birth year also saw the premiere of his opera The Marriage of Figaro. Mozart wasn't writing symphonies in this period and, whilst one could argue he simply didn't have the time, far more likely an explanation is that these concertos' dramatic content would have scratched any symphonic itches he may have felt. Number 21 in C major (K467), with its intensely lyrical and much-loved slow movement, moves from cheekiness to anguish to catharsis with a whole lot more along the way. Biss (on modern concert grand rather than any period instrument) has completely and satisfyingly surrendered to the music's moods and emotions, whilst maintaining Mozartian clarity and poise. In the stately K482, clarinets are substituted for oboes, and Biss’s first entrance into this darker orchestral colour has a corresponding graceful elegance. His emotive reading of the mournful, unsettled Andante leaves one in no doubt as to why the first audience demanded an encore. Fantastic stuff.