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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The Piano Concertos

Philharmonia Orchestra
Conducted By Vladimir Ashkenazy 

Review By Phil Gold
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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart The Piano Concertos

CD Number: Decca 4768904 or 443727 

 

  After graduating from the Moscow Conservatory, the 18-year-old Vladimir Ashkenazy won second prize in the International Frederick Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1955. He shared top prize in the 1962 International Tchaikovsky Competition. In the seventies, Vladimir Ashkenazy was popularly regarded as perhaps the world's number one pianist. His live performances of the complete Chopin Etudes in the Festival Hall, which I was fortunate enough to attend, certainly justified that ranking at the time. It is unlikely that many would place him there today. Since those early days Ashkenazy has turned his attention increasingly toward conducting. Following a period as Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic from 1998 to 2003, he is now Music Director of the NHK Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo, Music Director of the European Union Youth Orchestra, and Conductor Laureate of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.

This 10-CD set is a rare chance to experience both strings to Ashkenazy's bow, if you pardon the mixed metaphor. He simultaneously plays piano and conducts the superb Philharmonia Orchestra in this complete Mozart cycle. The double and triple concertos are included, with Daniel Barenboim sharing honors in the double concerto and Fou Ts'ong joining Ashkenazy and Barenboim for the Triple Concerto. The recordings were made in various London locations between 1966 and 1987, with the majority dating from the eighties. All but a few were digitally recorded.

In interpreting Mozart, you've either got it or not. Clara Haskil, Walter Klein, Edwin Fischer, Annie Fisher, Rudolph Serkin and Robert Casadesus all had it, Perahia, Brendel and Barenboim have it, but on this showing Ashkenazy does not--at least not all the time. This is an uneven set. Ashkenazy is never less than note-perfect, the orchestra never less than tidy, but adrenalin is in short supply. Ashkenazy is too often less than fully engaged, while the orchestra sounds to have, in the words of Douglas Adams, "turned its charisma down a notch."

The low point of this cycle, which should have been the pinnacle, is the third movement of No 24 in C Minor, K491. After a fine beginning, the piano rhythms around the three-minute mark are leaden, sapping the joy from the performance. The playing is foursquare, lacking grace and subtlety. By comparison Barenboim, also his own conductor with the English Chamber Orchestra, better shapes the phrasing, giving impetus and excitement in both the orchestral playing and his own fine pianism. Barenboim's cadenza is magical, while Ashkenazy is low-key and misses the mark in his self-composed cadenza.

Consider the slapdash, almost apologetic performance of the Two Piano Concerto K365/316a in E Flat major. The old Vox disc of Brendel and Klein [TUXCD 1028] is a stunner, full of panache and steely pianism with the enthusiastic if not altogether sophisticated support of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra under conductor Paul Angerer.

Ashkenazy is at his best in the middle period works, No 16 in D Major, K451 being a shining example. A widely spaced orchestra supports a jaunty Ashkenazy with pumped up rhythms, crisp articulation and strong projection. Here, as in many of the works, he plays his own cadenza. But the great No 20 in D Minor, K466 is unbearably slow. He takes 34m17s to Stephen Bishop Kovacevich's 28m25s. It is not the pace that does him so much as the phrasing. If you are going to use slow tempi, you need to bring life to the music through subtlety and poetry, something Kovacevich has in spades. Kovacevich is mesmerizing throughout and enjoys a totally organic relationship with the LSO under Sir Colin Davis [Philips 422 466-2]. Ashkenazy is out of tune with Mozart's spirit here, particularly in the third movement Rondo, which never really gets off the ground. The Philips sound cannot hold a candle to what the Decca engineers have achieved, but that is the only advantage I can think of here for the Decca team.

Another disappointment is the lack of variety in the performances. Each concerto, under the hands of a true Mozart master, inhabits its own unique sound world, pulling at different heartstrings. But there is rarely a sense in Ashkenazy's recordings that this is music of the highest calibre. Ashkenazy is at home in Beethoven, masterful in Chopin and Rachmaninoff, but on this evidence Mozart does not pull the best out of him. The orchestral playing is restrained throughout, as if the conductor wishes to scale back the forces so as not to overpower the music. But Mozart is nothing if not full-blooded in these works, and does not need to be handled with kid gloves. He deserves big boned playing with a small chamber orchestra, and I advise you to look elsewhere for that understanding and poetry that Mozart elicits in the best performances. If I had to choose a single cycle, I would go for Alfred Brendel with the Academy of St Martins in the Fields under the superb direction of Neville Marriner [Philips] or for Murray Perahia and the English Chamber Orchestra [Sony Imports], although both are more expensive than this bargain set.

 

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