Mozart. Piano Concertos No 25 (in C major No 25 KV 503), No 18 (in B flat major No 18 KV 456), No 23 (in A major No 23 KV 488), No 27 (in B flat major No 27 KV 595) .

Nos. 25 and 18: Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Howard Shelley soloist and conductor; no. 23: Simon Tedeschi piano, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Briger conductor; no27: Imogen Cooper piano, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Richard Tognetti leader
ABC Classics 481 0192, ABC Classics 482 0191, ABC Classics 481 0189, ABC Classics 481 0190
Reviewed by , March 1st, 2014

Four mid- to late-career piano concertos of Mozart form the focus of attention for recent discs from ABC Classics. These recordings are at least three years old, with the oldest, the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s, thirteen years old. They seem to have been recorded live (although this does not appear to be mentioned anywhere) in front of relatively well-behaved audiences. The recording locations are the Federation Concert Hall (for the TSO performances) and the Adelaide Town Hall (for the ACO performance). Although few enough listeners will listen to all four discs in one go, listening in this fashion does tend to draw attention to the merits of the recording locations — the Federation Hall has a rather cold, crystalline acoustic that seems to have blenched warmth from the orchestra as much as from the soloist, while the relatively warmer acoustic of the Adelaide Town Hall allows the generous drama of the ACO’s performance to shine through; Imogen Cooper’s piano also sounds richer and warmer than Howard Shelley’s in particular in the Federation Concert Hall.

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Throughout this series, the orchestral playing is highly capable, regardless of whether one considers the discs recorded by the TSO or the ACO. The ACO’s musical gestures are, for my taste, more carefully considered and more finely etched. In the Howard Shelley-led TSO performances, grandiloquent gestures are avoided. The result is a certain sameness for the length of single concertos, extending to matters such as dynamic control and the unwillingness to characterise particular movements. The greater experience of the ACO in ‘historical performance’ betrays itself in the handling of mass; the opening of the C major concerto (KV 503) by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra is a little too shrill in the brass section, taking little account of the brazen bloom to the sound that the brass section gave to the eighteenth-century orchestra.

All of these concertos give evidence of Mozart’s increasing mastery of the integration of wind and string sections, and of the vital importance he ascribes to the wind as articulators of musical structure. The wind playing, irrespective of orchestra, is very fine, and is particularly striking in the slow movement of the TSO’s A major concerto (KV 488), the success of which depends critically on the wind instruments. The performances of KV 488 and KV 595 are clearly the stand-out performances for the tightness of ensemble between orchestra and soloist; one senses the listening orchestra responding and interjecting (where needed) in these concertos in a way that seems absent in the Howard Shelley-led performances of the TSO.

Similarly, the solo playing is as fine as one would expect from soloists of the calibre of Shelley, Cooper, and Tedeschi. Shelley’s playing, however, seems marked by a cool reserve verging almost on distance from the music. His sound is clear and clean, brilliant where required, but somewhat removed from emotional engagement from the music; he is admirable in the fast movements but the slow movements are strangely unengaging. The Haydn-esque eccentricities of the slow movement of the B flat major concerto are passed without remark; the autumnal gold of the slow movement of the C major concerto is played through but not in.

Cooper gives a performance of the mature B flat concerto that takes account of the sophistication of its dialogue in the fast movements with chatty, witty playing but is also utterly equal to the mock-naïveté of the romanza-style Larghetto. Tedeschi, however, makes KV 488 entirely his own, dealing particularly capably with the plangent second movement, taken at a slow enough tempo to wring every agonised gesture from the music.

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