Mozart Piano Concertos
A good record, most certainly worth hearing, with true and expertly balanced sound catching the light and shade of two pleasing performances. How pleasant to be in the company of these artists again, I thought to myself as I started to listen. An air of spontaneity is to the fore, and the characters of these concertos—Mozart's last for the piano and so different from each other—inspire a flow of sensitive and shapely playing, exceptionally well recorded. A couple of minutes of the beginning of the Coronation Concerto from Guschlbauer and the Lisbon orchestra on Erato / RCA will come as a perhaps salutary reminder that the excellence of Uchida, Tate and the ECO, and of the Philips teamwork, should not be taken for granted.
Not that the Erato CD—in the competitively priced Collection Bonsai series—is so bad. The origins of those recordings go back ten years and more, with Armin Jordan and the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra as the partners of Maria-Joao Pires in K595. And in her there is a pianist of quality whose personality is not less interesting than Uchida's, it seems to me. In some ways I warm to her more. She has a style and an ability to go to the heart of the matter which sometimes recall Clara Haskil. When Uchida is at her most colouristic and delicate reducing her tone to a whisper, as she likes to do in the slow movements, I tire of her. Some will think this an ungrateful reaction but she strikes me as putting too much refinement on offer, at the expense of directness. There seems an excess of attention to the less important things, in these slow movements particularly, which for me are flawed by an overlay of artifice—well-meaning and charmingly applied but tending to turn every statement into something exquisitely fragile. Nothing is straightforward because nothing is left untouched. And I think the quality of balance we recognize in the best Mozart performance is impaired when this happens.
Uchida is misguided, I suggest, in taking these slow movements so slowly, and I think from that comes most of the trouble. Mind you, she's in good company, Schnabel's included, but it does seem a misinterpretation to play the Larghetto of the B flat Concerto in a slow four, when Mozart asked for two-in-a-bar. Dangerously becalmed she muses on its beauty in a withdrawn, vaguely other-worldly way; if this same music appeared in Die Zauberflote, as well it might, would people still interpret it thus? Pires is not far short of a minute quicker. She is exactly a minute quicker in the Largherto of the Coronation Concerto too where I have the same objection. There Pires is almost matter-of-fact, but I would rather have that than over-inflexion, over-interpretation. But it is a pity she leaves the solo part unadorned and doesn't supply a continuation of the piano's decorative line into bar 105, Uchida, avoiding this grammatical solecism, is also not shy about adding decoration elsewhere, with taste and a likeable air of having made it up on the spot. Yet how difficult it is to add anything at all to Mozart's text. Embellishments in the concertos, however necessary, have a way of never sounding exactly what Mozart himself would have done in the circumstances.
In the first movement of the Coronation Uchida supplies a cadenza of her own; Pires plays the one Mozart wrote for his earlier D major Concerto K451, which for a long time was misattributed to the later piece—it actually fits it quite well. In K595, the eventful and wonderfully fashioned cadenzas Mozart wrote for the outer movements, so closely integrated with the fabric of the composition that a performance of the Concerto without them is unthinkable, are well done by Uchida, though with too many poetic hesitations for my taste. Well, I may come to like them better. I know I shall never learn to live with the main theme of the last movement of K595 as she does it, with a high-stepping, almost staccato accompaniment.
The first movements are what I've enjoyed most. The sound is lovely, the articulation impeccable, the line supple, and Tate shows how much the opening Allegro of K537 gains from the sort of detailed attention to the orchestral writing which this rather maligned Concerto is customarily thought not to require. Its loosely articulated cavalcade of melody has rarely been handled on records so sympathetically. In the finale there is a strange extraneous noise in bar 213, by the way rather like a shout; it is masked by the music and I can't quite make out what it is but it certainly shouldn't be there.
This is an uncharacteristic blemish on a fine production. From that point of view the Erato is not in the same class and is open to more reservations about balance and the quality of sound, above all—than I've expressed here. If, however, the K595 Concerto is your main concern, do try to hear Maria-Joao Pires in it as well as Mitsuko Uchida.'