Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 23 & 27

Christoph Eschenbach, pianist and conductor; Houston Symphony. HDTT HDCD254.

HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) is a company that usually remasters classic, commercially available prerecorded tapes and LP's in the public domain, often to stunningly good sonic effect.  But here they apparently have done something a little different. No, the sound is still remarkably good; it's that I don't believe anybody ever commercially released the 1987 digital tape they used. If these Mozart piano concertos did appear on CD somewhere, the fact escaped me; nor could I find any reference to such a release in a Google search. In any case, let's take a look first at the performances and then at the sound.

Pianist and conductor Christoph Eschenbach took over as the principal conductor of the Houston Symphony in 1988 and continued in the post until 1999. He recorded the two piano concertos reviewed here in 1989, just a year after his tenure began, and in them he conducts a pared-down orchestra from the keyboard while acting as the soloist.

Eschenbach begins with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major (1786), the first movement of which the pianist plays in a bouncy, ebullient manner, yet with a fair amount of grace and lyricism. The movement consists of three main themes, Eschenbach indulging in a good deal of speed variations among them, sometimes effectively, sometimes not. The central Adagio seems even more solemn and melancholic than Mozart intended; however, Eschenbach establishes a lovely poetic feeling throughout. The Allegro finale finds the pianist and orchestra at their happiest, maintaining a steadier tempo than in the opening and conveying wonderfully high spirits.

Next, we get the Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major (1791), which was Mozart's last foray into the piano concerto field and may have even marked the composer's final public appearance as a soloist. No. 27 is one of his most-mature works, one of his best integrated, and one of his easiest to like. The three movements hang together beautifully in terms of tone and theme, something we generally wouldn't see until the nineteenth century.

Eschenbach shows a steady control all through the work, bringing out both the seriousness and the playfulness of the piece. Nevertheless, he sometimes overemphasizes the contrasts and mood changes and loses a little subtlety along the way. Then, even though he takes the Larghetto at a tad too slow a pace for my liking, there is a lovely radiance about the final movement that is hard to resist.

Recorded live, digitally, in 1987 at Jones Hall, Houston, Texas, the sonics are excellent in most regards. The big exception I'll mention up front: It's the "live" part. If you can tolerate the coughs, wheezes, shuffling, and other extraneous audience noises during quieter passages, particularly during the middle, slow movements of each concerto, plus the nasty outbursts of applause that follow each selection, you'll probably love the sound. It's very realistic, very much alive, very much a you-are-there experience.

The sound is a little closer than I'd like, too, but it exhibits a wonderful transparency, with plenty of air and space around the instruments. Although the piano seems a trifle thin, possibly a result of the acoustic, which isn't the warmest or most resonant, there is a pleasant sparkle to the piano notes and taut, clearly defined transients. Perhaps because of the slightly close miking, there isn't a lot of depth to the orchestral stage, either, just a very wide stereo spread. The strings are a touch forward, again accounting for the miking. The result is sometimes startlingly natural and lifelike. Besides, I'm sure a host of people enjoy live recordings and don't mind audience noise at all. Indeed, it may transport them more comfortably to the live event. If that's the case with you, this HDTT transfer may be exactly your ticket to an hour or so of unadulterated bliss.

HDTT make the music available in a variety of formats for a variety of pocketbooks, from Redbook CD's, 24/96 DVD's, and HQCD's to 24/96 and 24/192 Flac downloads for playback on high-end computer audio systems. For details, visit


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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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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