Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 19 and 23 (CD review)

Also, aria from Idomeneo. Helene Grimaud, piano; Mojca Erdmann, soprano; Radoslaw Szulc, leader, Bavarian Radio Chamber Orchestra and Symphony. DG B0016204-02.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was a musical prodigy on the piano, a child genius whose father dragged him all over Europe to play before kings and courts. It's no wonder, then, that Mozart would produce some twenty-seven piano concertos during his relatively short life. He seems to have been born to the genre.

French pianist Helene Grimaud, who began playing the piano at the age of seven, also seems to have been born to the instrument. In the few recordings I've heard from her, she appears not only sensitive and virtuosic but more than willing to be herself as well, to reinterpret old favorites with new shadings of her own. Although I've not always agreed with her vision of things, I can certainly appreciate her desire not to be another sheep following every other pianist before her. If there wasn't room for a multitude of interpretations in musical performances, there would be no need for hearing more than one of anything.

Ms. Grimaud begins the program with the Piano Concerto No. 19 in F major, K. 459, where she takes the opening Allegro vivace at its word with a vivacious tempo and characteristically imaginative phrasing. Then she makes the slow center movement all the more lovely for its straightforward simplicity and delicacy, wrapping things up with a snappy finale that seems only fitting.

Between the album's two concertos, Ms. Grimaud chose to ask soprano Mojca Erdmann to sing "Ch'io mi scordi di te?" - "Non temer, amato bene" from Mozart's opera Idomeneo. The music makes a charming and wholly appropriate interlude in the proceedings.

In the disc's final work, the Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488, Ms. Grimaud tends to race through the Allegro, even if the orchestra wants clearly to take their time. Perhaps she wanted to get to the ravishing central Adagio all the more quickly. Certainly, there is no questioning the radiance of her playing here, the tenderness in every note. No doubt, too, her extra-slow pace in the Adagio contributes to a small diminution of lilt and lift; alas, it's all a trade-off, a compromise. In the closing movement Ms. Grimaud is fleet, polished, and technically remarkable, if not quite so much fun as several of her colleagues, particularly Ashkenazy (Decca), Tan (Virgin), Curzon (Decca), Perahia (Sony), and Barenboim (EMI and BR Klassik).

DG recorded the two concertos live at the Prinzregententheater, Munich, May, 2011 and the aria in the Residenz, Herkulessaal, July, 2011. The concertos are miked close enough to reduce most audience noise, but the sonics are still rather soft and a little hollow, with a good number of extraneous sounds from Ms. Grimaud's footwork perhaps or hall resonance, I don't know. It's a distraction in any case and just one of the drawbacks of recording live. Otherwise, the piano is well out in front of the orchestra and fairly well delineated, the orchestral accompaniment smooth though not especially impressive. The vocal pieces, not done live, sound significantly cleaner and more natural, the voice sweet and clear. Not unexpectedly, the two concertos come complete with a disfiguring outburst of applause at the end of each.

Incidentally, there's one oddity about DG's labeling of the album: Neither the booklet cover nor the jewel-box spine mention the music involved. They only name the composer and the artist, Ms. Grimaud. I guess you are supposed to know instinctively (or simply remember) what Ms. Grimaud is playing on the disc once you've set it on your shelf. Or maybe the folks at DG figure people don't really care what Ms. Grimaud is playing, only that she's doing it.

JJP

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa