Comparison: Maria-João Pires, Deutsche Grammophon 4775200;
rec. Hamburg 1989-93
If you need proof
that Wolfgang Amadeus gathered notes that fell from Heaven look
beyond his Church music to these instrumental works. There is
no shortage of Mozart’s piano sonatas on CD but there is only
one Maria-João Pires; or rather, there are two.
In 1990, as DG began
to release its cycle, Denon (Nippon Columbia) re-issued these
1974 recordings at a budget price, long deleted until now. Whereas
DG is very expensive, Brilliant Classics publish these five
CDs at super-budget price level yet the presentation, box, and
booklet are top quality.
Maria-João was born
in Lisbon, Portugal in 1944. It is a remarkable thing that genius
often blossoms in a person’s thirtieth year. The Denon and DG
series are separated by years during which digital technology
improved immensely and by a gap in her career which I know only
as the illness of the artist. Reading the DG biography it seems
her musical life began when she was signed by them; however,
in the early seventies Erato, a label with impeccable taste
and a great back-catalogue now in the Warner group, recorded
her. For me her Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart sonatas and concertos
are “personal”, sublime, pure, exalted, naïve. As she once said
in a master-class, the score is not the music; meaning, I believe,
that if it were then it would be best played by a computer.
In my home an international pianist who heard her Bach on an
out-of-print CD became quite determined to acquire a copy or
deprive me of mine.
Pires belongs to
the elite whose technique is sufficiently brilliant to become
irrelevant: her choices of tempi, phrasing, dynamics, are determined
by her unerring instinct; and that is a good phrase to define
her artistry. She is no metrical time-beater; for her the score
is nothing more than the clues to the composer’s sound. This
is not the imposition of her own will - quite the contrary,
unless you believe that these composers were limited to unemotional
“metrical” constraints. This “mathematical formula” view is
arguably most applicable, if at all, to Bach; until you hear
her play Bach. Therefore, in my estimation, she is one of the
greatest pianists of all time and a one-off. She plays with
more than mind, but with body and soul. She is arguably at her
best with people, which means concertos rather than sonatas
and concerts rather than studio recordings.
OK, so I peeked
at The Gramophone review of the 1974 Denon recordings
on their 1990 reissue and it said almost the opposite of what
follows here. It shows just how subjective music reviewing is,
unless, as I believe, one of us must be absolutely wrong. In
that case music reviewing is not so much subjective, but unreliable.
If I am wrong, you waste £15; if I am right you escape briefly
from the madness of the world.
It appears, to my
surprise, that Brilliant Classics have not re-mastered the recordings.
They sound exactly the same as the Denon CDs. Nippon
Columbia made these PCM recordings almost a full decade before
Sony/Philips launched CD yet they suffer none of the thin hard
sound that audiophiles condemned in the first Sony/Philips DDD
recordings ten years later. Testing the theory that today’s
Hi-Fi CD players have solved the problem proved partially correct
but played on an old CD player I had to hand, the 1990 Denon
discs sounded good. To my surprise, after fifteen years of digital
progress, the DG did not win points for superior sound engineering.
Now to the essence
of this critique: the performance of the music. Pires’s view
of the piano sonatas has not changed radically but for Denon
there is an innocence that perfectly reflects the music. If
you want more dynamics, phrasing, and such artistic virtuosity
consider DG, because arguably her technique has matured but
I do not like it. Try a lollipop, the famous Sonata No.11 in
A major “Alla Turca”. Whilst the later recordings dazzle the
mind these originals melt the heart. Even if the huge price
advantage were reversed I would still choose this “fresh reissue”.
It is more quintessentially Mozart and more Pires.