Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K.466 (1785) [31.31]
Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K.467 (1785) [27.00]
Haiou Zhang (piano)
Heidelberger Sinfoniker/Thomas Fey
rec. 21 May 2012 (K.466), 7 July 2010 (K.467), Rudolf-Wild-Halle, Eppelheim, Germany

For his recent release on Hänssler Classic, pianist Haiou Zhang, a new name to me, turns his attention to Mozart’s Piano Concertos No. 20 and No. 21. Mozart’s late piano concertos are some of the finest music ever written, so Zhang has entered a fiercely competitive field. Consequently the discography is heavy with excellent recordings from distinguished Mozartians of the highest order such as Daniel Barenboim, Alfred Brendel, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Murray Parahia, Maria João Pires, Mitsuko Uchida. There are also a number of talented newcomers on the scene, and the names of Daniil Trifonov and Jan Lisiecki spring to mind. I have not really followed the trend that some performers have for period instrument accounts using the fortepiano.

Haiou Zhang is accompanied by the Heidelberger Sinfoniker under the direction of Thomas Fey, a partnership renowned for its as yet incomplete cycle of the complete Haydn symphonies, referring to its modern instrument performances as “historically oriented” using “principles of historical authenticity.” Sinfoniker founder and artistic director Fey studied the principles of historically informed performance with Nikolaus Harnoncourt at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. It seems that Fey is currently not actively conducting following a serious injury.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K466 from 1785 comes from an extraordinary productive period in Mozart’s life. He felt settled in Vienna and that was where as soloist he gave the première of the score. Quintessentially a highly romantic score, the D minor Concerto is the first of only two that Mozart composed in a minor key. Under Fey the outer movements, Allegro and Rondo - Allegro assai, feel fleet and reasonably buoyant. It’s not long before I became aware of Zhang’s unquestionable skill, control and considerable commitment. Lovely playing of the central Romance but little in the way of the poetry the finest performers often provide.

Completed also in 1785, just a few weeks after the D minor Concerto, K466, the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K467 is sometimes known as ‘Elvira Madigan’. The name is taken from the Andante movement, which appeared in the 1967 Swedish film of the same name directed by Bo Widerberg. Immediately in the C major Concerto I was struck by the booming orchestral sound in the forte passages. Uplifting and lively, the opening movement Allegro maestoso contains majestic and highly melodic writing, with the assured Zhang displaying some attractive playing. Probably the most enduringly celebrated slow movement that Mozart wrote, the exceedingly memorable and tender melody of the Andante is played with reasonable delicacy. In the witty Rondo Finale Zhang gives an ebullient performance of his dashing piano part, yet matters feel slightly rushed.

Zhang gives dedicated and agreeable performances with some lovely playing that bodes well for his future exploration of Mozart scores. In truth, in the catalogue there are far more assured and stylish performances around than these from Zhang, and with greater tonal coloration. Throughout, I am never fully convinced that Fey and Zhang are truly at one. In both works the quality of the orchestral playing from the Heidelberger Sinfoniker is excellent under the firm if idiosyncratic conducting of Thomas Fey. The strings seem slightly recessed yet I’m unsure if this is down to the recording balance or not. Otherwise the recorded sound from Rudolf-Wild-Halle, Eppelheim is satisfactory.

In these enjoyable Mozart piano concertos the promising Haiou Zhang seems some considerable way behind the list of performers of the front rank. My first choice recommendation in this pair of concertos has to be Mitsuko Uchida directing from the piano the Cleveland Orchestra recorded live in 2010/12 at Severance Hall, Cleveland on two Decca albums. Uchida, who was born to play Mozart, is in exemplary form, reaching elevated heights of excellence, and her Hamburg Steinway sounds stunning.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Richard Kraus

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