Top Ear

Barenboim’s Mozart Concertos

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Leonard Ip writes

Barenboim’s Mozart piano concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra (he later recorded some of them with the Berlin Phil.) are now on EMI Masters and National Gallery (the coupling of the latter taken from Classics for Pleasure). Mozart’s piano concertos are in essence more of entertainment that the solo works, and they don’t lack fine recordings. Notwithstanding strong competition from Uchida, Brendel, Perahia etc., Barenboim’s set remains my overall favourite.

Here, as usual, Barenboim conducts from the keyboard. The ECO, with a rich and luxurious tone and suave, characterful instrumental solos, plays splendidly. This is how healthy, spirited Mozart should sound like –  as opposed to so many anorexic performances we now have. Mozart’s score demands cultivated playing from the strings and the woodwind in particular, here executed with flying colours by the ECO. Brendel’s accompaniment, Marriner/St. Martins in the Fields, sound straightfaced and plain in comparison. The ECO also played for Perahia and Uchida, but with Barenboim they sound distinctly resplendent.

Barenboim’s artistry at the piano is undoubted for its unique sense of refinement and sophistication. “Old School” is exactly the term for Barenboim – an attribute all the more distinguished in today’s crowd of faceless pianists. Molding long phrases with pedalling and fine-tuning details on dynamics and articulation, what Barenboim presents here is Mozart playing in the most personal and original light. His jeu perle is to be commended – not only does it yield anything to other noted Mozartians, but it is certainly very favourable because of a special kind of “rounded”, “moist” aura. (For reference, Andras Schiff’s sonority in his Mozart is transparent and sharp.)

Under Barenboim’s deeply thought renditions, the autumnal moods and structure of K. 595 (Mozart’s last piano concerto) now allude to Beethoven frequently (the minor key statement of the first theme in the first movement’s development section reminds me of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto every time it arrives). The D major rondo (K. 382) is a simple and jubilant early work of Mozart, but Barenboim treats it no less exquisitely than other mature and more popular concertos (the long-breathed and beautiful trill in the central section is something to savour). The two minor key masterpieces (K. 466, K. 491) are played with intense, personal sentiments and undaunting dramatic power, revealing the side of the music that transcends any practical concerns with period instruments. My view that Mozart is more in need of good style and true sentiment than “fidelity to the score” maintains, and Barenboim is just the right person for it.

Nonetheless, Barenboim’s Teutonic and heavy-handed musicality, however well it may merge with Mozartian lightness, results in some relatively uncommon playing, most notably the famous F sharp minor Adagio in K. 488. It is not played particularly slowly, but the immense concentration on each and every note is such that it resembles Celibidache’s glacial slow movements. It is hard to imagine anyone else than Barenboim adjusting dynamics and articulation to such a meticulous degree (the lone notes played by the piano as the strings do pizzicato, for instance, are linked together by the most subtle relationship in volume and touch). I find myself agreeing on many things with Barenboim, not least because for everything he does he does with a deep, unfailing sense of humanity, but it is understandable that some may prefer light, more fluent and “siciliano” renditions.

Barenboim’s rapport with the ECO is apparent – changes in voices and transitions are handled intimately and proficiently. Perahia’s Mozart concertos, to many, remains a benchmark, and from videos that I have saw, Perahia’s rehearsals with the ECO are very well-done indeed. Having heard these recordings, it becomes very clear that Barenboim is (at the very least) as good as the younger American. Pragmatically speaking, though, Perahia’s recordings are seldom seen in separate discs, and as these discs by Barenboim are now at mid-price, Barenboim’s recordings are indeed an excellent acquisition for those who a complete set is not preferred. The C major sonata K. 545 fills the National Galleries disc together with the two minor key concertos, and is played freshly with occasional romantic touches. The two discs on Masters contain two concertos each, with the K. 382 rondo thrown in generously.


Mozart: Piano Concertos
Daniel Barenboim, English Chamber Orchestra
EMI 5099967871223
ADD CD1: 63:16, D2: 66:25

National Gallery:

Mozart Piano Concertos Nos. 20 & 24
Daniel Barenboim, English Chamber Orchestra
EMI 55099963872442
ADD/DDD 75:23


Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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