Ashkenazy/Decca, Bilson/Gardiner, Perahia/Sony,
Given the huge discography
afforded Mozart's piano concertos, a
new recording has to be rather special
to gain any leverage on the market.
Sad to say, this new Somm recording
is neither special nor as rewarding
as the comparison versions listed above.
However, it does possess some fine features
that should be noted.
Formed in 1996, the
Orchestra of the Swan tends to specialize
in new music and has commissioned numerous
works in recent years. This is a fine
orchestra that executes the Mozart piano
concertos in excellent fashion. Pianist
Mark Bebbington, who has garnered much
praise for his recordings of British
piano music, gives a sterling performance
that is fluid and graceful while partnering
expertly in dialogue with the orchestra.
The problem with the
performances rests with the orchestra's
director. While his style might well
be outstanding in conducting modern
music it’s problematic with Mozart.
To come to the crux of the matter, I
need to provide some background to the
three concertos on the disc. Mozart
wrote them soon after his departure
from Salzburg and arrival in Vienna.
His aim was to gain a fine reputation
in Vienna and earn considerable fees.
As Mozart wrote to his father in the
autumn of 1782, "These concertos are
a happy medium between what is too easy
and what is too difficult; they are
very brilliant, pleasing to the ear,
and natural, without being vapid".
I would add that these
three concertos, unlike a few of his
more mature works in the medium, are
relatively devoid of any profound utterances
- brilliance, vitality and lyricism
are the qualities that need to be highlighted.
Mr Curtis, however, employs slower tempos
than those from the comparison performances,
thereby dampening the music's brilliance
and vitality. I have nothing against
slower than normal pacing as long as
there are benefits to be gained, but
here no such benefits are forthcoming.
Instead, the performances come through
as somewhat lumbering vehicles that
fail to take flight.
Of greater damage is
the soundstage. The upper strings are
on the grainy side, bass response is
boomy/poorly defined and the piano tone
is too wet and overly reverberant. The
absence of a bloom to the sound is a
major detriment to a Mozart recording,
and the forces here are not able to
overcome this problem.
Given the slow tempos
employed and the rather odd and unattractive
sonic properties, I am unable to put
my stamp of approval on this new Somm
recording. The comparison versions are
just the ones I listened to in conjunction
with this review. There are also many
other alternative recordings of these
three piano concertos that surpass the
Somm. One choice that comes to mind
is the recent Arte Nova cycle featuring
pianist Matthias Kirschnereit and the
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra conducted
by Frank Beermann; it contains youthful
and vibrant accounts of Mozart's earlier
piano concertos that significantly best
the heavy performances on offer here.
In any event, readers are advised to
"take a pass" on this Somm; the competition