Alongside Bach’s cantatas, Beethoven’s String Quartets and Haydn’s Symphonies, Mozart’s series of 27 solo and multiple Piano Concertos are among the most sublime musical collectives ever committed to manuscript.
Whether listened to in sequence or picked out at random, each one is a polished gem that one can’t imagine ever being equalled, let alone surpassed – that is, until you move onto the next!
Quite apart from the music’s interpretative challenges that sit on a knife-edge between restrained elegance and passion, absolute precision and spontaneity, laughter and tears, the successful Mozartian must encompass a virtuoso exuberance that is never showy, a glowing cantabile touch free of self-awareness and an uncluttered clarity of thought that avoids the clink of Dresden china.
Four complete cycles stand out for their consistency of vision and accomplishment…
The best recording…
Daniel Barenboim (piano)
English Chamber Orchestra (1967-1974)
EMI 572 9302 (10 CDs)
For the sheer exhilaration of discovering these extraordinary works as if for the very first time, Daniel Barenboim’s (right) first integral cycle with the English Chamber Orchestra still takes pride of place.
Like a first-rate, page-turning novel, these remarkable recordings from the late 1960s and early ’70s are so alive and infectiously compelling that as each concerto ends one can’t wait to move on to the next instalment.
This was a classic period for both the ECO and Barenboim and the special qualities of their working relationship are reflected in a series of recordings, faithfully transferred to CD by EMI (with double bass lines clearly differentiated, to telling effect), captured on a yearly basis when the music had been recently taken on tour.
Rarely has the uncontainable exuberance of Mozart’s celebratory opening allegros – the two D major Concertos K451 and K537 (‘Coronation’), for example – been so joyously conveyed, nor the intimidating, Don Giovanni-esque insinuations of the D minor K466 made to sound so deeply unsettling.
Barenboim’s ability to create a convincing emotional narrative, familiar from his Beethoven Sonata recordings of the same period, turns each work into a must-hear conversation piece in which every phrase becomes an unmistakable musical metaphor.
This remains one of his defining pianistic achievements in the recording studio.
Three more great recordings…
Murray Perahia (piano)
English Chamber Orchestra (1975-1988)
Sony 82876 872302 (12 CDs)
For exquisite keyboard command, no one quite matches Murray Perahia. His poetic sensibilities and sonority are perfectly matched in this music.
In even the four early Concertos, adapted from the music of Raupach, Honauer, Schobert and CPE Bach, he invests every phrase with the same microcosmic shades of expression that distinguish the later masterpieces.
He extends the same degree of care to the orchestral parts as he does his own, so that one senses the sea change in the C minor central movement of K271 as a jewel of musical intensity.
More than any other conductor/director he takes care to ensure that important inner voices (violas especially) illuminate the texture where appropriate.
He produces a glowing yet articulate, luminescent sound quality that is as near perfection in this music as one is ever likely to encounter.
Alfred Brendel (piano)
Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Marriner (1970-1984)
Decca 478 2695 (12 CDs)
Intellectually uncoiffured and musically penetrating, Brendel has the knack of making Mozart sound supremely inevitable.
Graced by classic Philips engineering of pearly luminescence and expert accompaniments from Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, this is a cycle for all seasons, whose supremely natural grace and poise are balm to the senses.
Interestingly, it is when Mozart is at his most disarmingly lyrical that Brendel really comes into his own, as in the two exquisite A major Concertos K414 and K488, which he phrases with a suppleness and gently exultant quality that captures the music’s mood perfectly.
The four B flat concertos – K238, K450, K456 and K595 (the last of all) – have proved among the most elusive of all on disc, yet in Brendel’s inspired hands they sound utterly cherishable.
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra (1972-1987)
Decca 443 7272 (10 discs)
Ashkenazy’s cycle is unique in that one experiences the subtle shades of Mozart’s music through the twin prisms of Schubert and Brahms.
Even when Mozart is at his most operatically bubbly, as in the finale of No. 17 (K453), Ashkenazy never just puts on a smiley face but uncovers all manner of subtle musical expression beneath the music’s surfaces.
Rarely exuberant (not even in the outdoor celebrations of K413’s opening), blessedly free of melodrama in the two big minor-key Concertos (K466 and K491) and without a whiff of authentic correctness, he displays an independence of thought and spirit that
has one rethinking what this music is about.
Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 15 in B flat major is performed on Tuesday 23 July at the BBC Proms by Yeol Eum Son and the BBC Philharmonic. Listen live on BBC Radio 3 or catch up on BBC iPlayer.
Original text by Julian Haylock