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.
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: http://www.elusivedisc.com/
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: