The 50 greatest Mozart recordings

Gramophone Mon 16th May 2016

Complete with the original Gramophone reviews of 50 of the finest Mozart recordings available

Mozart

It is a sure sign of the greatness of Mozart's music that it has proved so ripe for re-interpretation and discovery by every generation of musicians for 250 years. In the list below we have gathered 50 of the finest recordings of Mozart's music – Gramophone Award-winning albums, Recordings of the Month and Editor's Choice discs, from Dennis Brain and George Szell to Arabella Steinbacher and the Jussen brothers. The list is organised by genre, beginning with orchestral works, then moving though chamber, instrumental, vocal and opera. We have also included, where possible, the complete original Gramophone reviews, which are drawn from Gramophone's Reviews Database of more than 40,000 reviews. To find out more about subscribing to this unique and endlessly fascinating resource, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe. You can also explore similar '50 greatest recordings' articles for Beethoven, Handel, JS Bach and Chopin.

 

Clarinet Concerto. Oboe Concerto. Flute and Harp Concerto

Wolfgang Meyer cl Hans-Peter Westermann ob Robert Wolf fl Naoko Yoshino hp Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(Teldec/Warner Classics)

There are happy and shapely performances of all three concertos here, but the particular delight is that of the latest and greatest of them, the Clarinet Concerto, which Wolfgang Meyer plays on a basset clarinet – that is, an instrument with an extension allowing it to add four semitones at the bottom of its compass. This is the instrument for which the work was originally composed, although only a text adapted to the normal clarinet has come down to us. The reconstruction used here, slightly different in some of its detail from others I have heard, works very well, making the familiar text’s rough places plain and logical; and it serves ideally for Meyer, with his rich and oily bottom register.

The first-movement tempo is on the leisurely side, giving him plenty of opportunity for refined and subtle moulding of the lines. Even the bravura music, shaded with delicacy, emerges with expressive content, and I admired especially Meyer’s light, fluid articulation of semiquaver runs. There is a rapt account of the Adagio and a lively Rondo, beautifully articulated; in both, the availability of the extra notes makes clear the logic of Mozart’s lines as he must have conceived them. Meyer has less rounded, more reedy a tone than many players favour. He adds a little ornamentation here and there, where Mozart seems to invite it; just once or twice I wasn’t quite comfortable with what he did. Altogether, though, a very musical and appealing performance.

In the Flute and Harp Concerto there is some delicate, clear playing from both soloists in what is perhaps a slightly austere reading of the first movement. The Andantino, too, is taken rather slowly, and with a chamber-musical refinement, with coolly aristocratic flute playing from Robert Wolf and gently expressive shaping from Naoko Yoshino. I thought the finale was a little restrained and pensive, certainly graceful but not quite as dance-like or as much fun as this gavotte-rhythm piece ought to be (and the interpretation of the appoggiatura in the main theme seems to me perverse). Hans-Peter Westermann contributes a sweet-toned and neatly phrased account of the Oboe Concerto, yet again rather leisured in tempo, in the finale in particular, and with one or two orchestral oddities especially in matters of accentuation (characteristic of Harnoncourt’s direction). But altogether a disc with much polished and sensitive playing. Stanley Sadie (March 2001)

 

Horn Concertos

Dennis Brain hn Philharmonia Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan

(Warner Classics)

Dennis Brain was the finest Mozartian soloist of his generation. Again and again Karajan matches the graceful line of his solo phrasing (the Romance of No 3 is just one ravishing example), while in the Allegros the crisply articulated, often witty comments from the Philharmonia violins are a joy. The glorious tone and the richly lyrical phrasing of every note from Brain himself is life-enhancing in its radiant warmth. The Rondos aren't just spirited, buoyant, infectious and smiling, although they're all these things, but they have the kind of natural flow that Beecham gave to Mozart.

There's also much dynamic subtlety – Brain doesn't just repeat the main theme the same as the first time, but alters its level and colour. His legacy to future generations of horn players has been to show them that the horn – a notoriously difficult instrument – can be tamed absolutely and that it can yield a lyrical line and a range of colour to match any other solo instrument. He was tragically killed, in his prime, in a car accident while travelling home overnight from the Edinburgh Festival. He left us this supreme Mozartian testament which may be approached by others but rarely, if ever, equalled, for his was uniquely inspirational music-making, with an innocent-like quality to make it the more endearing. It's a pity to be unable to be equally enthusiastic about the recorded sound. The remastering leaves the horn timbre, with full Kingsway Hall resonance, unimpaired, but has dried out the strings. This, though, remains a classic recording.

 

Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra No 10. Flute and Harp Concerto. Horn Concerto No 3

Ulrich Hübner hn Frank Theuns fl Marjan de Haern hp Yoko Kaneko pf Anima Eterna / Jos van Immerseel pf

(Zig-Zag)

Director and fortepianist Jos van Immerseel is a veritable pioneer of period Mozart. Belgian period-instrument orchestra Anima Eterna’s exuberant performances reveal a natural union of pioneering spirit and refreshing musical flavours. The performers show commendable integrity in their approach to using historical instruments: the characteristics and origins of the solo instruments are each enthusiastically described in the booklet-note but the loving care given to detail in this joyful music means this is never in danger of seeming merely a dour academic exercise.

The invigorating Concerto for two pianos (Salzburg, 1779-80) opens proceedings with a revitalising fix of blazing horns, vibrant woodwind and articulate strings. Anima Eterna’s stunning playing in the tuttis is perfectly balanced with the fluent playing of Immerseel and Yoko Kaneko. After such joie de vivre, the Flute and Harp Concerto (Paris, 1778) features sensitively judged playing from Frank Theuns and Marjan de Haer. I have rarely encountered such an affectionate and warmly stylish performance of the Allegro, and the Andantino is ravishing.

Ulrich Hübner plays with attractive immediacy in the Third Horn Concerto, composed around 1787: the poetic Romance has a lyrical elegance one seldom hears from even the best natural horn players, and an infectiously sunny performance of the dance-like Allegro concludes this magnificent recording with a charismatic flourish. These performances are radiant: if you buy only one Mozart CD this anniversary year, let it be this one. David Vickers (August 2006)

 

Complete Piano Concertos

English Chamber Orchestra / Murray Perahia pf

(Sony Classical)

Mozart concertos from the keyboard are unbeatable. There's a rightness, an effortlessness, about doing them this way that makes for heightened enjoyment. So many of them seem to gain in vividness when the interplay of pianist and orchestra is realised by musicians listening to each other in the manner of chamber music. Provided the musicians are of the finest quality, of course. We now just take for granted that the members of the English Chamber Orchestra will match the sensibility of the soloist. They are on top form here, as is Perahia, and the finesse of detail is breathtaking.

Just occasionally Perahia communicates an 'applied' quality – a refinement which makes some of his statements sound a little too good to be true. But the line of his playing, appropriately vocal in style, is exquisitely moulded; and the only reservations one can have are that a hushed, 'withdrawn' tone of voice, which he's little too ready to use, can bring an air of selfconsciousness to phrases where ordinary, radiant daylight would have been more illuminating; and that here and there a more robust treatment of brilliant passages would have been in place. However, the set is entirely successful on its own terms – whether or not you want to make comparisons with other favourite recordings.

Indeed, we now know that records of Mozart piano concertos don't come any better played than here.

 

Piano Concerto No 22

Alfred Brendel pf Academy of St Martin in the Fields / Neville Marriner

(Philips)

Brendel's first recording of Mozart's expansive and luxuriantly scored Piano Concerto in E flat , K482 appeared 14 years ago (8/69), and it is fascinating to compare it with this new one. Both are notable for their sense of style and their clean but always sensitive and musical articulation in runs, and both show a readiness to embellish Mozart's oflen sketchy melodic line: indeed, Brendel's elaboration of the solo part in the lovely Andantino cantabile episode in the final Rondo might almost be considered overdone, tasteful though it is. But the new performance has, as one would expect, a maturity and authority not to be found in the earlier one; the cadenzas (by Brendel himself - Mozart's own were probably never written down, and have certainly not survived) are appropriate and reasonably succinct; and Brendel is less eager to join in the orchestral tutti, a practice which, though historically justifiable, makes musical nonsense when the solo instrument is a modern grand. In addition, the new recording, technically first-rate, has the benefit of exemplary accompaniment by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields under the unerring guidance of Neville Marriner. For anyone wanting a recording of K482 as near perfection as one is likely to get, this new issue is the obvious answer. Robin Golding (October 1977)

 

Piano Concertos Nos 18-22

Northern Sinfonia / Imogen Cooper pf

(Avie)

Imogen Cooper’s two previous Mozart concerto releases with the Northern Sinfonia and Bradley Creswick (12/06 and 8/08) have both been roundly praised and no one who enjoyed them is likely to be disappointed by this latest instalment. Indeed, the qualities that make Cooper quite simply one of the finest pianists this country has produced make her perfect for Mozart duty. Clear but velvety ringing tone, perfect voicing of chords, unsleeping alertness to the necessary subtleties of rubato and line, and above all an ability to realise this music’s intimate poetry that can make you catch your breath, make these performances the kind that any musician should listen to and learn from.

There are good opportunities to display such artistry in these two concertos, both of which have minor-key slow movements of considerable emotional sophistication, to which Cooper responds with depth and grace. She is not always quite matched in this by the orchestra, it must be said – the wind episodes in the Andante of K482 are rather cold and the rapt beauties of Cooper’s playing of the minuet theme in the same work’s finale are slightly trodden on by the unison violin line that goes with it – but in general the Northern Sinfonia provide backing that is musically engaged, texturally transparent and technically right up to the mark. Their opening to K482 has all the rich grandeur it needs, and here indeed is one quality which some listeners may feel is a little lacking in Cooper. Likewise playfulness and simple hard-edged brilliance of tone, for instance in Paul Badura-Skoda’s witty cadenzas for K482 or the lead-backs in the finale of K456. But then, when what she does give us is so much, why worry too much about what she doesn’t? Lindsay Kemp (January 2011)

 

Piano Concerto No 27. Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, K365

Emil Gilels, Elena Gilels pfs Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Karl Böhm

(DG)

This is the most beautiful of Mozart playing, his last piano concerto given here by Emil Gilels with total clarity. This is a classic performance, memorably accompanied by the VPO and Böhm. Suffice it to say that Gilels sees everything and exaggerates nothing, that the performance has an Olympian authority and serenity, and that the Larghetto is one of the glories of the gramophone. He's joined by his daughter Elena in the Double Piano Concerto in E flat, and their physical relationship is mirrored in the quality, and the mutual understanding of the playing: both works receive marvellous interpretations.

We think Emil plays first, Elena second, but could be quite wrong. The VPO under Karl Böhm is at its best; and so is the quality of recording, with a good stereo separation of the two solo parts, highly desirable in this work. Stephen Plaistow (November 1974)

 

Piano Concertos Nos 18 & 22

Ronald Brautigam fp Cologne Academy / Michael Alexander Willens

(BIS)

In a letter to his daughter Nannerl, Leopold Mozart expressed his pleasure at the interplay of the various instruments after hearing Wolfgang perform the B flat Concerto, K456. I experienced comparable delight listening to this beautifully recorded performance from Ronald Brautigam and the responsive Cologne period band. In a Mozartian opera reimagined in instrumental terms, fortepiano, wind and strings conspire and banter with captivating grace and legerdemain.

Likewise using a modern copy of an Anton Walter fortepiano, Brautigam favours rather fleeter tempi, and a more direct style of phrasing, than Robert Levin on his fine L’Oiseau Lyre recording with Christopher Hogwood (11/96 – nla). In the first movement, with its suggestion of a march for toy soldiers, Levin is more reflective, Brautigam more playfully extrovert, stressing continuity of line above rhythmic and tonal nuance. I prefer Brautigam’s more flowing manner in the G minor Andante, where Levin’s minute inflections can sound over-exquisite. The period woodwind, led by the virginal solo flute, are especially delectable in the serenading G major variation. As to the ‘hunting’ finale, you’d go far to hear a performance of such darting wit and panache, or one that exudes such a sense of delighted collusion between woodwind – each one an operatic character in itself – and the fortepiano’s sweet, silvery treble.

In the more opulently scored K482 (trumpets and drums, oboes replaced by clarinets) I ideally wanted a fuller string tone than the 14 Cologne players can muster. That said, the performance is scarcely less enjoyable than that of K456, not least in the C minor Andante, which at Brautigam’s unusually mobile tempo is just as touching, and (in the confrontational second variation) more dramatic, than in more gravely paced readings. Brautigam generates an exhilarating forward sweep in the regal opening movement – Levin (9/98 – nla) is more inclined to linger over detail – and an infectious sense of fun in the finale, where swiftness never compromises immaculate clarity of articulation. His own cadenzas are short and to the point. Levin’s are longer, cleverer and more consciously showy. Again, some may find Brautigam too swift in the finale’s sensuous Così fan tutte-ish interlude, with its ravishing clarinet sonorities. For me the easily flowing pace and delicate touches of embellishment, predictably less lavish than Levin’s, mesh perfectly with the animated naturalness of the whole performance. Richard Wigmore (July 2014)

 

Piano Concertos Nos 20 & 25

Martha Argerich pf Orchestra Mozart / Claudio Abbado

(DG)

A disc of Mozart piano concertos recorded in concert by Martha Argerich with Claudio Abbado and Orchestra Mozart was always going to be a delicious prospect. Hearing of Abbado’s death as I write these words turns the pleasure of hearing it into something altogether more bittersweet. Lucky were those souls who heard these performances of the D minor Concerto, K466, and the C major Concerto, K503, at the Lucerne Festival last March – an experience denied London audiences a few months later when first the ailing Abbado and then Argerich cancelled their appearances. (Not that the stand-ins were any sort of disappointment – Bernard Haitink and Maria João Pires.)

Both Argerich and Abbado have returned to Mozart late in their careers: she revisiting the piano duets and a handful of concertos; he forming the hand-picked and youthful Orchestra Mozart specifically for the purpose. Not uncharacteristically for her, the present concertos are both works she has recorded before – the D minor in 1998 (Teldec/Elatus, 6/99), the C major in 1978 (EMI, 4/00) and again as recently as 2012, during that year’s Progetto Martha Argerich at Lugano (EMI, 8/13). Of that last recording, Caroline Gill wrote that it was ‘musically and technically equal to anything she has recorded in the studio’; but here again she surpasses herself. The backing of the exquisitely refined Orchestra Mozart grants full rein to her personal brand of expressivity. Every note matters, both individually and as part of a phrase, and once again her microscopic alterations of touch make even the most mundane run of semiquavers dance and sing, imparting something undefinable and treasurable to her performances here.

The C major comes first on the disc, the grandeur of Abbado’s introduction contrasting with the spirited filigree of Argerich’s solo contribution. She is fully alive to the darker undertow of the D minor, perhaps the only disappointment being Abbado’s refusal fully to acknowledge the way the work’s Sturm und Drang demeanour is undercut by the whiff of Singspiel at the work’s close, the sound world of Don Giovanni giving way to that of Papageno and The Magic Flute. Argerich sets off with a will in the finale but doesn’t let herself get carried away in the Romanze’s central convulsion, sticking firmly to the tempo of the gentler outer sections. Where she does let go the full power of her virtuosity is in the cadenzas: her teacher Friedrich Gulda’s in K503, the familiar Beethoven in K466. Familiar, perhaps, but rendered almost hallucinogenic when refracted through the prism of her unique musical imagination. David Threasher (March 2014)

 

Double Concertos

Lucas Jussen, Arthur Jussen pfs Academy of St Martin in the Fields / Neville Marriner

(DG)

Mozart’s Concerto for three pianos, K242, was composed in 1776 for the Countess Lodron and her two daughters, and later arranged for (the only slightly more convenient) two pianos. The Concerto for two pianos proper followed in 1779 and was conceived for Mozart himself and his sister Nannerl to perform together. Much play is made of the opportunities for the pianos to echo each other or hocket figures between the two instruments, as well as simply letting one accompany the other or one provide harmonic filling to the melody of the other. It follows that this music is ideally cast for a pair of pianists who match each other in tone, temperament and technique. Two brothers, for instance.

Lucas (b1993) and Arthur (b1996) Jussen are such an ideal pair, right down to their identical floppy blond hair, black T-shirts and winklepickers. It’s not quite that only their mother can tell them apart, but on hearing them play these two duet concertos, even she might struggle. The cadenza in K365’s opening movement ends with a chromatic scale over three and a half octaves, split between the two pianos, and I swear you can’t hear the join. Those moments where the two pianos toss a motif between each other sound for all the world like a single instrument. And each knows when to fine his tone down to pianissimo to let the other have his moment in the spotlight.

The Jussen boys have found perhaps the perfect collaborator in Sir Neville Marriner, who has conducted more Mozart than most; the Academy acquit themselves well. The disc closes with the sonata that all amateur duettists attempt – the D major of 1772 – perhaps not played with the freedom that comes with the experience enjoyed by Pires and Argerich in Lugano but with a youthful exuberance that’s entirely appropriate for music by a 16-year-old composer. David Threasher (January 2016)

 

Violin Concertos

Giuliano Carmignola vn Mozart Orchestra / Claudio Abbado

(Archiv)

Virtuoso “violinism” and energising direction notwithstanding, neither Giuliano Carmignola nor Claudio Abbado seems inspired by the B flat Concerto, K207. Nor does slick dispatch do much for the first movement of the D major, K211; but this is not the shape of things to come. Carmignola steps away from neutrality in the succeeding Andante. The music breathes a life of its own as he ardently inflects its phrases to shape the tension and relaxation of his line which – as elsewhere – he also embellishes. And pauses are decorated with lead-ins. Here is personal involvement that from now on is present in full flower.

It’s a flowering for Abbado too, as he summons a passionate advocacy that takes in the implications of key and time signatures on atmosphere and pacing, uses dynamic markings and intuitive accents to keep rhythm aloft, adjusts the timbres of the wind instruments (oboes are vivid or subdued, horns play in alto or basso) to suit the colouration he requires, and aerates the orchestral fabric for maximum clarity. Conducting and interpretation are in the realms of greatness – and no mistake.

In the solo concertos, Carmignola is recorded with varying but small changes of volume. His positioning is steadier in the Sinfonia concertante; and so is his placement with the artistic, if slightly reticent, Danusha Waskiewicz. Nevertheless, their skilled dovetailing and intelligent use of tone colour speak of symbiosis. Abbado remains primus inter pares, watchful, supportive and fortifying. Pity the sound isn’t always clear and detailed. Superlative music making deserves consistently superlative recording. Nalen Anthoni (September 2008)

 

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