Review: Shaham and Parker play Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos

Earlier this week I was standing in line at a bookstore with my iPod turned on and my ear buds tucked into my ears. I was listening to Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos; pre-listening for last night’s Seattle Symphony performance with guest pianists Orli Shaham and Jon Kimura Parker. When it was my turn at the cash register, the cashier asked a simple enough question.

“What are you listening to?” he asked.

“Mozart,” I replied.

“Ahhh, Mozart, that’s what I always turn to when I need to relax after a stressful day.”

This cashier, as genuine as his question and comment were, probably has never heard Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos in E-flat major. If he had, I am sure he would have a different opinion of the composer.

Gerard Schwarz picked Mozart’s concerto as one of the pieces to open the Seattle Symphony’s subscription season and invited Parker, a pianist with Northwest and Seattle Symphony ties, and Orli Shaham, an accomplished pianist in her own right, sister of Gil Shaham, and wife of David Robertson, to play the piece. Schwarz tucked the concerto between two Brahms warhorses: the “Variations on a Theme of Haydn” and the First Symphony.

Mozart had reached his twenties by the time he composed the concerto and decided to write the piece in an attempt to win the favor of the Archbishop of Salzburg. Mozart’s concerto succeeded last night because of the keyboard prowess of Parker and Shaham. Unlike other concertos for more than one instrument, Mozart’s concerto places equal demands on both pianists. Neither piano part is dominant, both have wonderful solo opportunities, and together there are dazzling, interlocking passages for both pianos that shower the listener with notes without drowning the ears.  You wouldn’t know it by Shaham and Parker’s fluid, on-stage rapport, but the duo had never played together in a concert before last night.

Though smaller than usual, the orchestra asserted itself without overpowering Parker and Shaham; providing solid and complimentary accompaniment.

The beginning and concluding Brahms works were not as successful. The “Haydn Variations” was the better of the two pieces. The “Haydn Variations” were played well but plainly and without the character and differentiation demanded by a set of variations.

For the First Symphony, the orchestra and Schwarz seemed undecided at how the audience should understand the piece. Unlike the “Haydn Variations,” there was too much variation. Was the orchestra trying to underscore the broader architecture of the piece and Brahms’s creative adherence to structure? Or, did they want us to see the piece as impetuous, rugged, and hyper-romantic?

Deliberate, purposeful phrasing was followed by head-scratching, agitation.  These alternating approaches might have worked if the changes in tempi and dynamics accented the tension and built up the drama of the symphony. At one point in the fourth movement, it appeared Schwarz urged the orchestra to lower the volume; the dynamic change wasn’t noticeable to me and the movement continued onward with just as much bluster as before.   The orchestra, whipped into frenzy, plowed through the grandest music in the whole symphony. Even the ennobling horn solo in the final movement, beautifully played by John Cerminaro, was rushed. Cerminaro’s vivid playing was equaled by the rest of the orchestra even though the interpretation lacked focus.

About two years ago, the SSO played the same symphony under the baton of Ingo Metzmacher. I know the orchestra can play the piece. Back then, the performance was cohesive and coherent. I was wowed by the dramatic use of restraint to create a satisfying whole.

Even though the Brahms bookends failed to impress me, this concert is easy to recommend on the strength of Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos. There is nothing relaxing or stress reducing about Shaham and Parker’s performance and that is exactly how it ought to be.

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