Mozart: Piano Concertos 17 and 22 (CD review)

Also, Rondo in A major. Kristian Bezuidenhout, piano; Petra Mullejans, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902147.

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:


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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 Jon 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

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