Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20 (CD review)

Also, Piano Sonatas Nos. 3 and 12. Seong-Jin Cho, piano; Yannick Nezet-Seguin, Chamber Orchestra of Europe. DG 00289 483 5522.

The month of this post, December 2018, marks the 120th anniversary of the founding of the German record label Deutsche Grammophon, making it the oldest continuously operating record company in the world. In an era of ever-changing musical formats (vinyl, 8-track, cassette, CD, SACD, Blu-ray, downloads of every stripe), it's good to see a giant of the industry surviving and, presumably, thriving.

Most of the time with Mozart's piano concertos, record companies couple two such concertos together on the same disc. This time out, either the company or the artist decided to combine one piano concerto with two of the composer's piano sonatas. The artist, Seong-Jin Cho, says he wanted a contrast in the accompanying pieces, which he certainly got.

Seong-Jin Cho is a young (b. 1994) South Korean pianist, who rose to international fame following his first-place finish in the 2015 International Chopin Piano Competition. He has since performed with major orchestras all over the world, participated in festivals everywhere, and recorded now five albums for DG. He is an accomplished musician and certainly a crowd favorite.

The program opens with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K466, one of the composer's most-popular offerings. A lot of folks may remember it from Milos Forman's 1984 movie Amadeus, where the Romance appeared in the closing credits. Mozart wrote the concerto in 1785, a half dozen years before his death, and as he only wrote twenty-seven of them (only?), it was also among his last. Anyway, Cho tells us he likes playing Mozart so much because the music is so filled with joy, emotion, and operatic drama. Needless to say, these are the characteristics Cho emphasizes.

Seong-Jin Cho
The first movement Allegro begins a bit solemnly and theatrically, rather in the vein of Don Giovanni, brightens up a bit, and then ends quietly. Although the piano takes its time about entering, it is a welcome entrance as it brings a fair measure of joy. Cho displays a handsome bravura here, and one can understand why he so enjoys the music. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe under the direction of Yannick Nezet-Seguin follows along obediently, if somewhat mechanically.

The second movement Romance is among the most sublime creations in all classical music. It begins in a mood of exalted peacefulness, although we hear a somewhat turbulent and contrasting middle section before the music returns to a tranquil conclusion. The Oxford Dictionary of Music defines "romance" as generally implying "a specially personal or tender quality." Cho doesn't so much convey that "tender quality" as he does carry over the joy conveyed in the first movement. Personally, I could have done with more a heartfelt or even more softhearted interpretation. While Cho's rendering of the music seems too matter-of-fact to me, a lot of listeners will no doubt be more touched by it than I was and find his direct, well-controlled approach most appealing.

The final movement Allegro assai (very fast) is restless yet still cheerful and generally sunny. It appears to fit Cho's manner of skillful, energetic playing quite well and brings the work to a satisfying close.

The two sonatas couldn't be more different from one another, No. 3 youthful and exuberant yet highly virtuosic, No. 12 more diverse and even more demanding. As before, Cho displays an exacting technique that manifestly demonstrates his technical process.

Producer Sid McLauchlan and engineer Rainer Maillard recorded the music at the Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden, Germany (concerto) and Friedrich-Ebert-Halle, Hamburg-Harburg, Germany (sonatas) in June and July 2018. The orchestral sound is clear, dynamic, and ultra clean. It's also a tad close and dry, with not a lot of depth (kind of one-dimensional). The piano is also a touch close, yet, as always with DG, sounds quite realistic, both in the concerto and in the sonatas.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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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