Mozart: Piano Concertos 17 & 24 (CD review)

Benjamin Hochman, piano and conductor; English Chamber Orchestra. Avie AV2404. 

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."

Benjamin Hochman
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, and Hochman's performance is as frolicsome as the piece demands while remaining polished and civilized. Mozart intended a degree of melancholy to pervade the second-movement Andante, which Hochman handles with delicacy. Then, there's that memorable finale; Mozart himself was so fond of it that he taught his pet starling to sing it. Hochman seems to be enjoying himself here, too, yet he never goes overboard in forcing the merriment of the variations.

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.

JJP

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa