This is the second recording of Mozart piano concertos to come from this team, the first disc, PTC 5186 305 coupling the C major K. 415 and C minor K. 491. Somebody might like to inform Pentatone that you can fit three of Mozart’s piano concertos on a CD these days. While I’m not particularly impressed by the playing time, these are very fine performances on a very fine recording, so such complaints are more just comments from the sidelines.
I happened to have been part of a concert in the NedPho-Koepel in December 2013, so know the acoustic pretty well. The venue is a converted circular church with a ridiculously high ceiling reaching right up through what seems like the entire profile of the building. This has been beautifully converted into a fabulous rehearsal/recording/concert space, one of its features being a set of acoustic shapes in the ceiling not unlike those which have tamed the vast space of the Royal Albert Hall in London. What you have here is an acoustic well suited to Mozart, with a nice halo of resonance which doesn’t echo eternally, but helps those legato lines and subtleties of dynamic and phrasing which make the simplest-seeming of music so effective.
Martin Helmchen is pretty uncontroversial in the Piano Concerto No. 15 in B flat, K. 450, with timings consistent with those laid down by one of my evergreen references in this music, Murray Perahia and the English Chamber Orchestra on Sony Classical. Perahia might have a touch more fantasy in his playing, but the more modern Pentatone recording favours the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra strings a little - some slow vibrato in the violins telling a little against the ECO here and there, something I hadn’t noticed before. Perahia creates elusive magic in the central Andante, where Helmchen is a little more playful - in a subtle way, but shortening notes to tease our minds into recognition of certain aspects of the variations. This playful nature expands in the final Allegro, taken a little faster than Perahia who aims more for poise and elegance. The winds are lower in the mix with the NCO and perhaps a little too far back in this instance - at least in the stereo mix. With the SACD layer the wind playing floats clear of the strings a little more, adding subtle colour to the already satisfyingly rounded orchestral tone.
Martin Helmchen can tease delightfully in this concerto, fully giving us Mozart’s wit and sparkle, and an idea of why the composer would also have been so popular as a performer and entertainer. Sly winks to the audience are however less a feature of Mozart’s last great Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat, K. 595, and Helmchen has a keen ear and touch for the inner worlds Mozart creates in the extensive opening Allegro. Moments of music-box simplicity jostle with those sublimely extended stresses and harmonic surprises which keep bringing us back for more. Everything is done beautifully here - a masterpiece elevated by masterful and enjoyable performance rich in texture and expressive contrast. Helmchen takes the wonderful central Larghetto at a more flowing pace than Murray Perahia in his now rather over-acoustic and somewhat aged sounding Sony recording. This still has plenty of gorgeousness, but in this case sounds rather distant and generalised in effect, the slow movement creating atmosphere and high drama but not hitting Helmchen’s more operatic feel. Helmchen doesn’t go in for helter-skelter speed in the final Rondo, but lightness of touch and plenty of dynamic contrast keeps everything alive and vibrant.
There are innumerable alternatives in this repertoire, and I’m not going to enter the ‘why more Mozart’ argument. This music is endlessly fascinating, and if this Dutch recording enhances our appreciation - and as far as I’m concerned it does - then good luck to it. I will certainly be looking out for further releases from this quarter, having greatly enjoyed both soloist and orchestra. The SACD sound is very nice indeed, and with violins 1 and 2 separated left and right you get a superb ‘lift’ from the accompaniment even when it’s engaged in the simplest of chugging. For a comparison of the kind of transparency in recording and scale of performance you have here I suppose the old Philips sound with Mitsuko Uchida, the English Chamber Orchestra and Jeffrey Tate is not dissimilar. If you like Mozart with both symphonic range and close-up intimacy; Mozart without pretension - at least, with what sound as if they might have been some of the composer’s little mannerisms but without too much added ‘interpretation’, then these performances will suit you very nicely indeed.
Masterwork Index: Mozart piano concerto 15 ~~ Concerto 27