Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791)
Piano Concerto No.20, K466 [30:29]
Piano Concerto No.21, K467 [27:21]
World premiere recordings of versions with orchestra parts transcribed for string quartet and double bass by Ignaz LACHNER (1807–1895).
Cadenzas by Beethoven (K466/i) and Alon Goldstein (K466/iii, K467/i and iii).
Alon Goldstein (piano)
Fine Arts Quartet [Ralph Evans, Efim Bolco (violins), Juan Miguel Hernandez (viola), Robert Cohen (cello)] with Rachel Calin (double bass)
rec. The American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, 24-26 June 2014. DDD
NAXOS 8.573398 [57:56]

I didn’t think I had encountered Alon Goldstein before, but he’s the pianist in the Tempest Trio’s recording of Dvořák Piano Trios Nos. 3 and 4 (Naxos 8.573279) which Brian Reinhart thought ‘good but not great’ – review. I was somewhat more positive in liking these vigorous and idiomatic performances – Download News 2014/8.

The Fine Arts Quartet is, of course, well known. Though their personnel have changed over the years like the parts of an artefact being changed little by little so that none of the original remains, their more recent incarnations have maintained their high standard as, for example, on their Naxos recording of Schumann’s String Quartets which earned the Bargain of the Month award (8.570151 – review).

The short notes on the rear insert of the CD claim that ‘these chamber versions of two of Mozart’s greatest and most popular concertos sound almost as natural as if Mozart had transcribed them himself’. Mozart did, indeed, make chamber-scale versions of some of his own earlier piano concertos and Nos. 11-14 are sometimes performed and recorded in that form, as by Susan Gomes with the Gaudier Ensemble (budget-price Hyperion Helios CDH55333 – Download News 2013/1). Please see also my review of recordings of these arrangements by Gottlieb Wallisch (Linn CKD424) and Anne-Marie McDermott (Bridge 9403), with link to Dominy Clements’s review of the Linn. Because Mozart conceived these works in dual format, the chamber versions make a most acceptable alternative, not significantly different from performances with a small period-instrument orchestra such as that of Nos. 11, 13 and 14 by Jos van Immerseel (fortepiano) and his orchestra, Musica Eterna. (Channel Classics CCS0990).

When it comes to these later concertos, however, I must admit that performances on a larger scale predominate in my unconscious expectations:

– Stephen Kovacevich with the LSO and Colin Davis in Nos. 20 and 23 (Philips 4224662) and Nos. 21 and 25 (4765316: Bargain of the Month – review) – both download only or on special order from prestoclassical.co.uk.
– Clifford Curzon with ECO and Benjamin Britten in Nos. 20 and 27 and with LSO/István Kertész in Nos. 23, 24 and 27 (Decca Legends 4684912, 2 medium-price CDs)
– Géza Anda with the Camerata Academica of the Salzburg Mozarteum in Nos. 20 and 21 (DG Eloquence 4632342, lower mid-price) or Nos. 6, 17 and 21 (DG Originals 4474362). This is the recording of No.21 which was used for the film Elvira Madigan, a meaningless title which has become attached to the concerto: to Naxos’s credit, they don’t use it.
– Alfred Brendel with ASMF/Neville Marriner in Nos. 19-21, 23 and 24, and Rondos K382 and K386 (2-for-1 Decca Duo 4422692 – Download News 2012/24)
– Howard Shelley with London Mozart Players in Nos. 20 and 23 (Chandos CHAN8992 – Download News 2013/1) and in Nos. 21 and 22 (CHAN9404).

You’ll find more versions of No. 20 in MWI Recommends – we haven’t got round to No.21 yet.

That’s pretty formidable competition and it’s only scratching the surface of what’s on offer – I haven’t even listed Dame Mitsuko Uchida’s recordings with Jeffrey Tate or her newer Decca version of Nos. 9 and 21 where she directs from the keyboard, or Martha Argerich at the Lucerne Festival in 20 and 25 (DG: Recording of the Month).

You may think that I’m building up to dismissing the new recording. I expected to do just that, but I found myself liking it very much: without wanting to play any of the versions listed above for comparison, I found Alon Goldstein’s performances and those of his supporting team satisfying in their own right. I did sneak in a listen to Géza Anda’s famous recording of No.21 afterwards and was surprised to find myself thinking it a little heavy-handed by comparison with the Naxos team. It’s not so much a matter of tempi – though Goldstein is slightly faster in all three movements, there’s just seconds difference – and Anda’s touch is light and nimble enough but the accompaniment now sounds a little too large-scale. These were revelatory performances in the 1960s – I remember being very impressed with Anda’s recording of No.23 when I heard it played as a new release on the radio – but even modern-instrument orchestras can and do offer lighter support now.

Memories of the film are hard to shake when hearing the slow movement of Anda’s No.21 – he makes the music sound more momentous than Goldstein and his team if that’s what you want. We’ve all been rather brainwashed by having this performance offered so frequently – there’s even a DG EP with ‘Elvira Madigan’ emblazoned across the cover – but the Naxos recording sounds fresher.

I also listened to Howard Shelley (CHAN9404, rec.1994) with the London Mozart Players in this movement and though he’s slightly slower than either Anda or Goldstein, he too makes the music sound fresh and unlaboured. I downloaded the Shelley in lossless sound from theclassicalshop.net, where it’s also available in mp3 – both versions come with the pdf booklet. Sample/stream from Qobuz or Naxos Music Library if you want to do the comparison yourself.

Shelley’s older recording of Nos. 21 and 24 with the City of London Sinfonia (Alto ALC1167) is also well worth considering by those in search of a bargain: sample or stream from classicsonlinehd.com, but I can’t recommend purchasing the download there for Ł7.99 when the CD can be found for around Ł5.50, perhaps in addition to the new Naxos CD. Both Shelley recordings and the new Naxos seem to make the music float a little more than Anda’s classic account of that slow movement.

Anda’s solo playing is lighter than his accompaniment and Shelley and Goldstein also offer an attractively light touch – perhaps that’s why Goldstein’s Mozart is more to the point than his Dvorák. The Fine Arts Quartet have had two changes of personnel since the Schumann CD mentioned above – Juan Miguel Hernandez (viola) and Robert Cohen (cello) – but with no diminution of standards and they have found a fine partner in Rachel Calin on bass.

At one time I collected almost all of the Naxos recording of Mozart piano concertos with Jenö Jandó and Concentus Hungaricus – very reliable performances and good value, but I’ve gradually shipped them off to various good causes, so I no longer have his CD of Nos. 12, 14 and 21, or the alternative couplings of 20 and 21 or 21 and 25, to hand for comparison, but I listened again via classicsonlinehd.com and found myself liking Jandó’s way with Mozart but preferring the new Naxos CD.

The recording is good and Keith Anderson’s notes are unsurprisingly informative and readable – as usual, they add to my recommendation, though presented in a very small font.

I must express one small reservation. 58 minutes is not desperately short playing time and this is not the only CD to offer just two concertos – most of the single-CD recordings that I’ve listed do just that, though the 2-CD sets are more generous – and the Naxos budget price compensates for the playing time, but there would just have been room for one of the four concertos which Mozart himself scored for chamber ensemble, leaving the door open for this team to give us a second CD of the other three. I hope that they will do that anyway, though I’m not sure which three I would choose at the expense of the fourth.

On the issue of value for money: Jandó’s recording of Nos. 20 and 21 used to be available coupled with a Haydn concerto (8.553265), but that appears to be available as a download only now.

Whatever full-scale versions of these concertos you may have, these small-scale versions, well-performed, recorded and presented, would make very fine additions to a Mozart library. If you don’t yet have recordings of either concerto, I’d look elsewhere first, from the recommendations listed above.

Brian Wilson

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