If you are as unfamiliar with pianist Benjamin Hochman as I was, here is a passage from his Web site to help you get acquainted: "Winner of the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2011, Benjamin Hochman's eloquent and virtuosic performances blend colorful artistry with poetic interpretation to the delight of audiences and critics alike. He performs in major cities around the world as an orchestral soloist, recitalist and chamber musician, working with an array of renowned musicians. Possessed of an intellectual and heartfelt musical inquisitiveness, his playing was described by the Vancouver Sun as "stylish and lucid, with patrician authority and touches of elegant wit." Hochman frequently juxtaposes familiar and unfamiliar works in his concert programs, a talent that also extends to his thoughtful recorded repertoire, from Bach and Mozart to Kurtág and Peter Lieberson. The New York Times wrote of pianist Benjamin Hochman "classical music doesn't get better than this."
After that, it's a lot to live up to. Fortunately, he does. He's obviously a fine young pianist and deserves attention. The thing I liked most about this playing on this Mozart album is that he never seems to show off his virtuosity as a few more celebrated pianists of his generation do. He appears to be content to play the music without embellishment and to play it rather traditionally as opposed to what we hear from today's popular "historically informed performances" do. To some ears, that may mean he's a bit old-fashioned. So be it; he's also comfortably entertaining.
Explaining why he chose this particular pairing of Mozart concertos, Mr. Hochman explains, "I chose to record these two concertos because to me they are mirror images of each other. The G major is full of sunshine and joy, but it also has these moments of darkness that show complexity, whereas the C minor is essentially tragic, full of fury and storm, yet it also has moments of calm and resignation, including much of the slow movement. Also, the last movements of the two concertos are both in variation form--the only two final movements of Mozart piano concertos that are variations. For these reasons, the two concertos really complement each other very well."
The Piano Concerto No. 24 in c minor, K491 is a contrast to No. 17, more mature, darker and more dramatic. Mozart finished it in 1786, writing it for a larger array of instruments than for No. 17, more so than for any of his other concertos, in fact, and its opening movement is the longest he had written to that point. Some music critics admire it so much, they consider it the best piano concerto Mozart ever wrote. I wouldn't go that far, but, then, music is so much a matter of taste and opinion, who can say?
You can tell from its long introduction that No. 24 has a bigger feel than his previous concertos and a more somber tone. When the piano finally enters, it's quietly subdued, Hochman gradually increasing its emotional scope and building its dramatic intensity. Still, Hochman always maintains an admirable poise, one clearly appropriate to the classical style. The slow, middle movement is sweet and simple, Hochman keeping it that way with playing both light and transparent. Hochman concludes by playing the finale with the grace and dignity it deserves as the culmination of an essentially tragic concerto, yet he never lets it sag and lag.
Hochman's interpretations of both concertos on the album are sensible, often reflective, and somewhat sedate. Whether that is what the listener is looking for is, of course, again a matter of personal taste. While there is certainly nothing earthshaking or revelatory about Hochman's readings, they are comfortably well performed, with thought and care. For most listeners that should be more than enough.
Producers Eric Wen and Melanne Mueller and engineer Dennis Patterson recorded the music at St. John's Smith Square, London in April 2019. As we have come to expect from Avie recordings, the sound on this one is as natural as one could want. It's not overly precise or clinically transparent; it's just clear, clean, and realistic, with as much detail as one would hear in a concert hall. There's a pleasant ambience communicated from the venue that adds to one's enjoyment, too, as well as a perceptible and lifelike depth to the orchestra. Moreover, the sound is smooth enough to enhance and enrich Hochman's fluent delivery. It all works quite well together. Although the piano stretches a bit far across the sound stage for my taste, it's not a serious concern when everything else lines up so well.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: