Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 20 & 23 (XRCD24 review)

Daniel Barenboim, soloist and conductor; English Chamber Orchestra. Hi-Q Records HIQXRCD44.

Argentine pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim (b. 1942) made his piano debut in 1950, and he's been going strong ever since. However, he first came to my attention as a conductor through his 1966-71 EMI recordings of the late Mozart symphonies with the English Chamber Orchestra. They impressed me at the time with their lively spirit, and they continue to be among my favorite interpretations even today. However, it would be a few more years after I discovered his Mozart symphony recordings that I heard his several albums of Mozart piano concertos with the same orchestra, which he recorded for EMI at about the same time. Unfortunately for me, when the CD age rolled around, I never replaced the piano concertos as I did the symphonies. Thus, this new Hi-Q audiophile release was my first return to Barenboim's ECO Mozart concertos in decades. It was a welcome return, as not only had I forgotten how good the performances were, I had forgotten how good the sound was, especially as so carefully remastered by JVC for distribution by Hi-Q Records.

Mozart wrote his Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K466, in 1785, and Beethoven much admired it. Young Barenboim offers up a performance of supreme delicacy and refinement that one could hardly criticize without appearing a somewhat petty. Yet there are occasions in the first movement when the pianist seems a tad impetuous. I couldn't help but put an obvious comparison disc on, that of Clifford Curzon with the same orchestra and recorded at about the same time. Curzon seems a touch more mature to me, Barenboim a fraction faster. But, as I say, these are minor concerns at best. Barenboim's playing sparkles throughout, and in the slow second movement he is almost as lyrical and poignant as Curzon. (Curzon may have an edge here because it's his performance we hear at the end of the movie Amadeus, and it's hard for me to shake that.) The concluding movement has Barenboim again in his element, providing a wonderfully light, lively, airy, bubbly ending to the concerto.

A year after No. 20, 1786, Mozart wrote the Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K488. Here, Barenboim is just as energetic yet just as sensitive as he was in No. 20, making this disc combination an easy recommendation. It's perhaps all the more surprising when you consider that this disc was the first in Barenboim's series of Mozart concertos, so it was clearly a good start. In addition, he does a fine job directing the ECO from the piano, the orchestra players making their contribution felt in their exacting and highly sympathetic accompaniment.

As always, the folks at Hi-Q package the disc in a glossy, hardcover, foldout Digipak-type case, the disc fastened to the inside back cover, with text notes on the inside. It's a class act all the way.

Daniel Barenboim
Producer Suvi Raj Grubb and engineers Robert Gooch and Neville Boyling originally recorded the concertos at Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London in January 1967. Engineer Tohru Kotetsu remastered the recording for Hi-Q Records at the JVC (Victor Company of Japan) Mastering Center, using XRCD24 technology. XRCD24 processing is among the most-demanding in the industry, and among the most expensive, and it yields impressive results.

In any case, I did not have the regular CD of these concertos with which to compare the Hi-Q. Nevertheless, I did have the EMI (now Warner) CD's of Barenboim's Mozart symphonies, which he recorded at about the same time, so they had to suffice for my comparison. The two most obvious areas of improvement in the Hi-Q vs. regular EMI sound are those of smoothness and clarity. The remastered edition is very slightly smoother and more detailed. It's maybe a hair less bright and forward, too, although a listener would probably only notice these differences upon direct A-B comparison. The piano appears well integrated with the orchestra, sounding lifelike in its placement and sonorities, with the ECO providing clean, transparent textures that come up well in the remastering. Orchestral depth is modest, stereo spread realistic, studio warmth pleasantly mild, and frequency extremes generally unnecessary.

Let's just say that the Hi-Q product is a fine-sounding disc; whether it's worth an expensive upgrade from the EMI/Warner product is a matter of personal taste and pocketbook. If you really, really like these performances and want them in the best possible sound, you might want to go for the Hi-Q. Those with only a mild interest or a simple curiosity might want to stick with the basic EMI product.

Among the places you'll find this recording is Elusive Disc:


To listen to 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