Mozart: Grands Concerts pour le Piano

COMPOSERS: Mozart
LABELS: Arcana
WORKS: Piano Concertos, K 271(Jeunehomme) & 414Musica Florea/Paul Badura-SkodaPiano Concertos, K 271 & 488Northern Sinfonia/Imogen Cooper (piano)
PERFORMER: Musica Florea/Paul Badura-Skoda; Northern Sinfonia/Imogen Cooper (piano)

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The title of Mozart’s ninth piano concerto, Jeunehomme, has nothing to do with the youthful ardour and audacity of the work. In fact, it was commissioned by a female pianist, Victoire Jenamy, whose name was wrestled by early Mozart scholars into the Jeunehomme we have today.

But what an extraordinary work it is: the bold introduction of the soloist at the beginning is only the first of many surprises which include an earcatching trill over a concluding theme at the second entry of the piano, an arrestingly sombre middle movement and a reflective slow interlude set amid the cheery bustle of the finale.

Although both these performances are directed from the keyboard, they could hardly be more different. Paul Badura-Skoda and the Czech ensemble, Musica Florea, perform on period instruments. Some may find the sound of the copy of an 1802 fortepiano by Walter, in this bright recording, a touch too brittle, but to my ears it integrates beautifully with the orchestra.

As a whole this recording is a tribute to the idiomatic excellence of period-instrument playing in Prague these days and Badura-Skoda plays with his customary insight into articulation even if ultimately the reading is not quite as thrilling as Andreas Staier’s with Concerto Köln.

Imogen Cooper takes a rather more big-boned view of the work; even the piano’s second phrase after the chirpy opening fanfare is a little on the reflective side. The orchestral playing is, throughout, expressive, although the rubato employed, particularly in the outer movements, rather gets in the way of the work’s vitality.

While a direct comparison with Badura- Skoda is not entirely appropriate, the period instrument performance offers a more vivid experience of the work, as do Brendel and Mackerras on modern instruments. The broad approach works better in Cooper’s performance of the ‘Great’ A major concerto which balances sentiment and drama admirably.

The slow movement has a persuasively inward-looking quality without descending into sentimentality. But in a well populated market, this handsome, well recorded performance must yield to the Mitsuko Uchida’s classic account with Jeffery Tate.

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Badura- Skoda’s makeweight is the ‘Little’ A major concerto in the version for both wind and strings. Beautifully shaped and magnificently accompanied by Music Florea, this performance is certainly an equal to Levin and Hogwood on L’Oiseau-Lyre although, on modern instruments, Murray Perahia and the English Chamber Orchestra remain a touchstone for performances of this wholly delightful work.