set of Mozart’s Piano Concertos really is complete. You
get the two-piano and three-piano concertos as well as all the
solo concertos. You get the two alternative finales, the so-called
Concert Rondos and you get the four very early concertos (K37,
K39, K40 and K41) which - by cleverly adding orchestral ritornelli
and accompaniments - the child Mozart ‘created’
from older composers’ sonatas.
Odd that these early, non-Mozart, concertos
are interspersed among the other genuine early pieces: I can’t
think of a possible rationale, musical or historical, for this,
other than to spread the sparse interest in these pieces more
evenly across a couple of discs. Odd too that the two Concert
Rondos aren’t linked with the concertos they normally
- or are most likely to - ‘belong’ to. For example
CDs 2 and 3 are hotch-potch programmes, chronologically and
stylistically! Talking of couplings, it’s very annoying
to find the late-and-great C major, K503, being divided between
two discs: why oh why, in 2004?
The packaging is rather bulky, with five discs
in each of two library cases contained in a card outer. It may
be a personal thing, but for big collections such as this one-off
card boxes, with CDs accommodated in a number of paper sleeves,
are much easier to handle. Raymond McGill’s notes are
concise, readable and informative.
These are on the whole well-prepared and sympathetic
performances. And the recorded sound is clean and nicely balanced,
with a warm ambience. Uncontroversial in every way, both Engel
(pianist) and Hager (conductor) adopt safe tempi, middle-of-the-road
dynamics and agreeable phrasing. They also exhibit a sense of
both style and characterisation. There is a notable absence
of any kind of risk or exaggeration!
Unfortunately, there’s precious little
in the way of what might be called ‘personalisation’
either - the sort of thing which could interfere with one’s
listening pleasure, but which could equally well cause one to
sit up, take notice, smile, jump, raise one’s expectations,
heighten one’s enjoyment or make one’s heart beat
a little quicker!
I am convinced that everything we know of Mozart
from his letters, his lifestyle, but above all his music suggests
he would have preferred more light and shade, more dash, more
weight and more warmth than we have here in these oh-so-careful
readings. There are countless examples in these sublime pieces
of delicious instrumental effects, heart-stopping harmonies,
surprise changes of itinerary and dramatic arrivals. Here most
of these pass by virtually unnoticed or with merely token acknowledgement!
This kind of shortcoming matters most if you
opt for long listening sessions, in which the sameness of approach
and limitations in expressive range soon begin to take their
toll. Listening to one concerto at a time, you might even value
these readings precisely for their coolness and their objectivity:
so beware how you interpret my comments!
I guess you could own and enjoy these performances
for years without ever noticing the missing ingredients. But
you probably wouldn’t ever experience the youthful energy
of K271; the operatic antics of K453; the heavy introspection
of K466; the dignified majesty of K482; the autumn sunshine
of K488; the dark tragedy of K491; the majestic splendour of
K503 or the quiet resignation of K595.
Unfortunately for Warner, collectors are spoilt
for choice in this repertory, even without splashing out at
full-price. Perahia’s matchless cycle on Sony with the
English Chamber Orchestra (mixed ADD and DDD) can be got quite
cheaply these days: so too can Schiff’s immaculately turned-out
Decca performances (DDD) with the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra
under Sandor Vegh. And there’s no shortage of polished
and revealing performances of selected pairings or groupings
of concertos already reissued at mid or budget price: Brendel
with Marriner (ADD) or Uchida with Tate (DDD) for example, both
on Philips Duo. And, once we’re into the higher price
range, you can have Goode with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
(Nonesuch) or Brendel with Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber
Orchestra (Telarc) - all in absolutely first-rate digital sound.
Ultimately, there’s not a great deal to choose between
all these ‘rivals’. They’re all searching
and stylish in their various ways, and frankly in a different
musical and technical league to Engel and Hager.
If you’re the sort of listener who can’t
decide who to vote for in the General Election; who drives well
within every speed limit; who stays indoors lest it rains, or
in case the sun comes out; who doesn’t mind watching Christmas
television on a black-and-white portable; or who eats the same
breakfast day in day out - these discs may well be up your street.
But, if you’re remotely fastidious or adventurous, you
may well find them as unsatisfying as I did, despite admiring
them for their honesty and common musical sense.
Five out of ten - no more!
Peter J Lawson