Listeners by now have come to expect great sound from the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra on Harmonia Mundi recordings, whether they fully appreciate the performances or not. With this album of Mozart piano concertos with pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout and the Freiburg ensemble, they get both. They get refined yet lively performances in some of the best possible recorded sound. It’s a pretty good deal.
Now, here’s the thing: You probably already have these piano concertos on disc. But do you have them performed on period instruments? Not only does the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra under Petra Mullejans sound different because of the period instruments, they play in a period style. And Bezuidenhout not only plays in a refined though spirited manner, he does so on a replica of an 1805 Anton Walter & Sohn fortepiano. These Harmonia Mundi recordings provide vivacious, nontraditional renditions of old favorites, done up in the fine audio I mentioned above.
The set begins with the Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K.453, which Mozart wrote in 1781 along with five others. The Concerto is lyrical and playful, with a much lighter feel than its companion piece on the disc, No. 22, written just the next year but sounding far weightier and more dramatic. Anyway, on the fortepiano, a less rich, less mellow, less robust instrument than today’s grand piano, No. 17 sounds wonderfully airy, poetic, and delightful.
Bezuidenhout’s playing is sprightly yet always cultured, even in so frolicsome a piece as this. While it’s true the second-movement Andante has a mildly melancholic air to it, Bezuidenhout plays it sweetly, never sentimentalizing it. Mozart himself was quite fond of the finale, so fond of it, in fact, he taught his pet starling to sing it. The pianist offers up a charming rendition of it, and one can almost hear the bird whistling along. Fine accompaniment from the Freiburg band under conductor Petra Mullejans make a good thing even better.
Next is the little Rondo in A major, K.386, which the composer wrote in 1782. It’s one of many Mozart fragments found scattered around the world. Although it is considerably less formidable than the concertos that surround it on the disc, it provides its own pleasures, being tranquil and serene in a rustic sort of way. Still, Bezuidenhout and company give it the respect it deserves.
The program concludes with the Piano Concerto No. 22 in E flat major, K. 482, one of three piano concertos Mozart wrote in 1785. Because of the weightier tone of the first two movements compared to No. 17, I couldn’t help wondering at first if a modern piano might not have suited the music better. After hearing the fortepiano, however, sounding so clear, so transparent, and so intimate, I again had second thoughts.
The Freiburg ensemble may choose tempos that are on the fleet-footed side, but they never sound too fast or too rushed. They are almost always rhythmically gentle and flowing, carrying the music and the listener along effortlessly. A strong, pounding opening sequence in No. 22 gives way to much more delicate passagework interspersed along the way, carried out with virtuosic intent by Bezuidenhout and company. The central Andante projects a vaguely sorrowful mood, and the finale creates an appropriately zesty atmosphere with its famous hunting theme. I can’t say I’ve heard any of this music done any better.
Harmonia Mundi recorded the music in 2012 at the Freiburg Ensemble House, Freiburg, Germany. It is among the best-sounding discs the folks at HM have made. The sound is beautifully clear, revealing a wealth of inner detail. What’s more, one hears a very wide dynamic range and plenty of punch throughout. Indeed, the impact is sometimes so great, you’d think you were listening to a rock band. An extensive frequency response features good, clean highs and taut bass; and a mildly reverberant hall acoustic complements the piano and the band, producing a modest glow around the music, which along with the miking contributes, no doubt, to the realistic space and depth we hear on the recording.
To top off a terrific issue, Harmonia Mundi supply the jewel box with a light-cardboard slipcover. Overall, it’s one of my favorite releases of the year.
To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here: