Moritz MOSZKOWSKI (1854-1925)
Piano Concerto in E major Op. 59 [35:39]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16 [29:40]
Joseph Moog (piano)
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern/Nicholas Milton
rec. 2014, Grosser Sendesaal, Saarländischer Rundfunk, Funkhaus Halberg, Saarbrücken
ONYX 4144 [65:37]

Browsing Joseph Moog’s discography on the Onyx label, there is little doubt that he brands himself as a free and adventurous spirit. Not settling for the well-trodden and run-of-the-mill, the young German pianist brings originality and imagination to his programming. I was very impressed with his pairing of the Rubinstein Piano Concert No 4 and Rachmaninov 3, which Onyx released in 2012 (review). In fact, the Rachmaninov is one of the finest versions I have heard. Other unlikely bedfellows have included Tchaikovsky and Scharwenka (review) and a disc of Scarlatti with a twist - a selection of the composer’s sonatas interspersed with transcriptions by the likes of Carl Tausig, Ignaz Friedman and Walter Gieseking (review).

In this latest release, Moog pairs the perennial Grieg Concerto, with the virtually unknown Piano Concerto in E major Op. 59 by Moritz Moszkowski. I say virtually unknown, yet the concerto, by my reckoning, has had four previous outings currently on CD: Michael Ponti (Vox), Matti Raekallio (Ondine), Markus Pawlik (Naxos) and Piers Lane (Hyperion). The latter two I have in my collection.

The Moszkowski is a delightful work, full of gorgeous, memorable melodies. I can’t understand why more pianists don’t take it up, as it provides a vehicle for some edge-of-the-seat pianism. It was completed in 1898, and bears a dedication to the composer’s one-time pupil Josef Hofmann. After a brief introduction, the pianist enters the fray and from thereon he’s rarely out of the picture. Throughout he’s kept on his toes with virtuosic demands and with Moog winningly meeting the challenges, alternating passion and drama with beguiling lyricism. Jeremy Nicholas quotes in his accompanying booklet notes the Israeli pianist David Bar-Illan (1930-2003), who recorded the Concerto for Audiofon (nla), describing it as ‘first and foremost an orgy of pianism ... a kind of assault on the senses’. Somehow, these words seem to capture the work’s essence.

The slow movement feels to me like the emotional heart of the concerto. It has a wistful quality, and after all the brashness of the first movement, Moog imbues it with a sense of calm, tranquillity and delicacy. It eventually opens out into another of those big romantic tunes, only to die away as it began. The Scherzo, which follows without a break, is capricious and fleet of foot, with the pianist indulging in some stunningly rhythmic finger-work. The finale is exuberant and sets the seal on this large romantic canvas with its sunny disposition. The first subject always reminds me of the equivalent in the finale of the Tchaikovsky Second Piano Concerto, which is strikingly similar.

How does this recording compare to the other two recordings I have? A head-to-head revealed shortcomings in the Naxos version, with Antoni Wit and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra lacking the refinement and polish displayed by Nicholas Milton and his band. In the Scherzo, Markus Pawlik sounds over-cautious, and his playing lacks the adrenaline rush and visceral excitement of the Onyx. Also, the overall sound-picture of the Naxos recording is coarse. The Hyperion with Piers Lane fares much better and, whilst I find Lane’s performance compelling, the improved state-of-the-art Onyx sound gives this new recording the edge.

The Grieg Concerto, which needs no introduction, was taped in concert last year, and has all the spontaneity and thrill of a live event. What draws me to a positive appreciation of this reading is Moog’s decision not to over-indulge or over-sentimentalize. In the slow movement he captures the ethereal, intoxicating, dream-like quality of the music, and the tone he achieves is ravishing.

Nicholas Milton and the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie prove responsive collaborators, not mere serviceable accompanists. Milton’s inspirational conducting and masterly matching of dynamics and phrasing gives these readings potency and distinction.

The release comes in top-of-the-range sound, a distinguishing feature of all the Onyx recordings I have had the pleasure of hearing. The engineers have succeeded admirably in achieving a perfect balance between piano and orchestra. I have to applaud this young firebrand’s enthusiasm, energy and commitment. For those who savour accomplished pianism and musicianship, I would invite them to spend an hour basking in some terrific music-making. Definitely a winner.

Stephen Greenbank

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