Last month I welcomed The New World Symphony in Esoteric's new series of classic Decca recordings, remastered in Stereo in Japan and released on SACD Hybrid discs. Here's another in the same series, two Mozart piano concertos from Clifford Curzon with the English Chamber Orchestra under Benjamin Britten. Is this worthy of the same accolades? Yes and no. Let me explain.
I'm a big fan of Britten's conducting. I experienced it once myself, live, when Britten conducted Elgar's Dream of Gerontius with Peter Pears as the Evangelist. I will never forget how moving and spiritual that performance was and how my grandfather, who had sung the work numerous times, revelled in the occasion. Britten has made sparkling recordings of Mozart Piano Concertos accompanying Sviatoslav Richter, even writing the cadenzas Richter used for the occasion. So I expected something special here on the orchestral side. In many recordings featuring the ECO in this repertoire, the soloist is also the conductor, as in the distinguished series with Murray Perahia and the equally fine Barenboim set. Indeed, this is how Mozart introduced the works, using the piano score as a base onto which to decorate the piano part.
It is clear that Britten was not in the driving seat in these performances. That honour goes to Curzon who has impressed his personal stamp on these performances. Left to his own devices Britten normally has a lighter touch, more pointing to the rhythms and more extreme dynamics. While we see some of this in K.595, he is more restrained in K.466, where the orchestral playing is steady and tonally beautiful, but dynamically and rhythmically subdued to suit Curzon's world view. Curzon plays delicately and dispassionately but takes a somewhat low-key view of the work, one of the finest in the literature. On the plus side, the concerto is delivered as an organic whole rather than a series of incidents, and both the orchestral ensemble and the relationship between piano and orchestra are of the highest order. Although restrained, with relatively slow pacing, the flow is strong and the pianist reveals details we normally miss. The first movement cadenza features outstandingly even trills coupled with superb articulation and phrasing. The world stands still, the pianism by turns crystalline, delicious and leonine. In the second movement Curzon uses just the subtlest rubato and minimal decoration. The passionate outcry some five minutes into this movement is held under surprisingly tight control, and this is one of the places I yearned for Curzon to let his hair down a little. The third movement offers an example of Curzon's “speak softly, carry a big stick” style of performance. You could say that this recording is best suited for the connoisseur, not for someone hearing the music for the first time. In short, I have a feeling Curzon would have given a top notch performance of K.466 in front of a live audience, but here the adrenalin doesn't flow in the same way.
The performance of K.595, Mozart's 27th and final piano concerto, is another story altogether. This is a work which Curzon identified with most of his life, and he was about to record it once again just before he died. Take all the good qualities from the K.466 performance, mix in a good portion of added passion, even greater understanding and poetry, and allow Britten to be Britten -- and you get magic. The orchestra has the swagger so sorely missed before, while the interplay between soloist and orchestra soars to amazing heights. You feel that Curzon was born to play this music, and Britten is his ideal partner.
Despite the fact that Curzon studied this work for so long, here we have greater spontaneity and directness with superb rhythmic inflections which lead to a sense of authoritative music making. All other versions are banished from your mind, just as when Lipatti plays Chopin, or Ella sings "Summertime."
I must comment on the recording, made at the Maltings in Snape, England in September 1970. It's honest, extremely well balanced and coherent, but lacks depth; it's not really to the same standard as Kertesz's Dvorak. My main complaint is the presence throughout of low-level incidental noises (ticks, breathing, pages turning) picked up by the close mic'ing, which proved distracting at times. Esoteric's remastering engineers have done an excellent job in extracting the best from the old master tapes but they have not tried to filter out all these noises, which impair the overall sound impression.
If you are looking for alternatives, I am very impressed with Ashkenazy's performances of these two works with the Philharmonia Orchestra, also recorded by Decca. Those digital recordings are very fine with silent backgrounds and do full justice to the masterly, expansive performances. I would rate Ashkenazy ahead on points in K.466 and on a par in K.595. Here you will find much bolder performances with superb pianism from Ashkenazy, dynamic and poetic, with a remarkably virile and agile accompaniment under the pianist's direction. Speeds are roughly comparable. Top recommendation for K.466 is the magnificent Stephen Bishop Kovacevich performance with the LSO under Sir Colin Davis. Davis provides the most powerful and articulate accompaniment and Kovacevich plays at surprisingly fast tempi, but still reveals the grandeur of Mozart's vision. This performance takes no prisoners but leaves no detail unlit. An alternative recommendation for K.466 is Alfred Brendel with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields under Sir Neville Marriner. Brendel steers a middle course between Kovecevich and Curzon. Daniel Barenboim excelled in Mozart's K.491and closely approaches that achievement in his performances of K.466 and K.595 with the ECO. Neither can one forget Gilels or Perahia. How lucky we are to have such wonderful performances available to compare and enjoy!
Performance 4 5
Sound Quality 4 4
Enjoyment 4 5
Historic Importance 4 5