In fact, historical evidence seems to indicate that at least the first two concerti in this set were intended to be performed “a quattro” (with a string quartet) as well as with a full orchestra and optional winds. That’s probably true of the K. 449 concerto as well which, even though it was completed a year later, may very well have been started around the same time as the first two in 1782.
The logic behind this might have been economic to some extent. In Mozart’s time public concerts were not the common events they are today. Most music lovers learned about the latest works by playing them. And while only the wealthy could afford to assemble an orchestra, the expanding ranks of the bourgeoisie could easily manage to get together in their homes to play the latest music. If you were an amateur pianist, your circle of friends might not include a chamber orchestra, but it might easily include a string quartet.
Hearing these early concertos in such intimate arrangements certainly has its advantages. The musical structure is thrown in to high relief and the dramatic and even operatic quality of much of the writing is more evident. That’s especially true when the performances are as elegant, graceful, and sympathetic as the ones we get here from Ms. McDermott and the Calder Quartet (with the addition of Mr. Grossman for the K. 449).
As an Artist Member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Ms. McDermott might be expected to handle this material well, and so she does. This is wonderfully nuanced and supple playing which is, nevertheless, not lacking in drama when that’s called for (as it is in K. 449).
That’s equally true for the string players—both the quartet and Mr. Grossman. They seem to be the perfect performing partners for these concertos. After a while, I began to feel that a full orchestra might not, after all, be all that necessary for this music.
That said, I’m not sure a modern piano is the ideal instrument for concerti a quattro. Ms. McDermott and the string players are nicely balanced, but even so the piano sound feels a bit too robust. Mozart was likely writing for a five-octave fortepiano, which would have had a far more delicate sound and would, I think, blend better with the quartet.
Still, it’s a welcome release and highly recommended. Bridge seems to specialize in the unusual and rarely heard. You can find out more about their catalog at www.bridgerecords.com.