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Thread: Piano Concerto in D minor, K. 466

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    Default Piano Concerto in D minor, K. 466

    I enjoy doing surveys of recordings, and I wanted to do a big work, not in length or scale, necessarily, but in stature and (or) popularity. That naturally leads one to a mere handful of names, and so I settled on something by Mozart. But which work? Well, I’m quite partial to the D minor piano concerto, so that fit the bill. Here’s a work that has it all. There is that, well, magical Mozart sound – an effortless mix of virtuoso but never ostentatious solo writing married to a clever and concise orchestral accompaniment. The minor key allows for some greater expressive options than his earlier major key concertos often do, and the dramatic sound world, with its thrusting strings and probing winds can bring one dangerously close to romanticism. Some artists go ahead and cross the line. And that’s fine. So, the work selected, I examined my collection and decided to dig in. Rather than use a chronological approach or random approach, I thought I’d start with a sort of benchmark, and then move randomly from there.

    So that musical angel Clara Haskil was selected to be first in my survey, not because she’s definitely my favorite, but because I have three different recordings of the work from her. I then decided to approach this subset chronologically. That meant dusting off her 1950 recording with Henry Swoboda and the mighty Winterthur Symphony Orchestra on Westminster. What’s that, you say? You’re not familiar with the WSO? I think I know why. They ain’t that great a band: dry strings and colorless winds do not a challenge for the VPO make. Anyhoo, the obvious shortcomings aside, one must mention the bold, dark, and romantic opening. It sets the mood for a haunting performance. But Haskil’s entry is from another world. It is not as dark, but rather it’s somewhat soft and other-worldly. She sees no real reason to portray a sense of urgency. She’s content to play it in a somewhat aloof and serene manner. As always with this pianist, she is more telling playing diminuendo than crescendo. Back to the accompaniment: it is generally adequate, but there is one nice touch when the strings follow Haskil’s arpeggios just so about two-thirds of the way through the first movement. It’s noticeable in most recordings, but I noticed it more here. Alas, the exaggerated, syrupy-slow orchestral lead up to the first movement cadenza is a bust. The second movement finds everyone in better accord, Haskil providing a serene central figure for the music to develop around. The final movement, however, seems as though it’s from another concerto. It’s a bit too peppy, with not enough minor key angst. Overall, the recording is good, but certainly not top flight stuff.

    Haskil’s recording from four years later with Bernard Paumgartner and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra represents a nice step up. The opening betrays that this is a leaner, tauter affair, with an appropriately dramatic (as opposed to romantic) air. Haskil’s playing is crisper and more direct, with a lightly but deftly applied staccato differentiating it from her more smoothed out earlier recording. The effect: her playing has greater urgency to go with her effortless grace. The first movement cadenza (and the third movement one, too) dazzles when compared to the earlier recording, with both the right amount of left hand heft when called for, and impressively clean right hand articulation. The second movement is less, well, soggy than the earlier version and while perhaps a bit more buoyant than before, it never fails to captivate. Perhaps the middle section could have a bit more oomph, but overall all it is good. The finale fits with the preceding movements perfectly. It’s somewhat springy though not too light, keeping a dramatic tone through the proceedings, tough the D major conclusion offers a sunny moment, as it should. As noted, the orchestra sounds far better, too: the strings have more body and a sweeter tone, the winds more color and precision. Perhaps the performance is not dark enough, but overall it’s quite satisfying and represents a noticeable improvement from her earlier recording.

    Haskil saved the best for last. Her 1960 recording with Igor Markevitch and the Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux must surely rank as one of the best available. The orchestral opening here is lighter, swifter, more flexible, and more filled with detail than its predecessors, but yet it remains dramatic. Haskil’s first appearance offers even more of what she offered under Paumgartner; she is crisper, more assured. It seems as though both main artists shared a common vision and purpose, freeing up the angel of the keyboard to display her genius in all its glory: her left hand chords resonate with taut, dramatic (though never ominous) power; her right hand playing is clean and perfectly timed; she commands the most delicate and precise dynamic gradations imaginable; and she moves back and forth with effortless grace between the most lovely legato and the most discreet staccato one could hope for. There is no amorphous note spinning or keyboard pounding to be heard anywhere! She also allows herself to play her own cadenza instead of Beethoven’s masterly one. And it works! One detects hints of Bach and revels in the gossamer-light right hand figurations and marvels at the fugue-esque run right up to the perfectly executed reentry of the orchestra. The second movement just continues the heavenly music-making. Sublime grace informs all. The orchestra accompany perfectly, and Haskil offers touching insights in the more introspective passages and ample energy in the more propulsive middle section. One sits in near awe at the utterly clear pianism, offering a lesson in how to pedal sparingly to elicit the appropriate effect. The conclusion ends the work perfectly. Haskil continues on as in the first two movements, and Markevitch offers the most lovely and attentive support one could long for. Listen for the delectable flutes peaking out. Listen for the mischievous oboe. Wonder at the delightful little back and forth between the flute and bassoon in the third movement. Everything is so well proportioned and so, well, magical, that one doesn’t want it to end. But it does, and it ends perfectly. Okay, so maybe the string tone sounds a bit dry and wiry, but who cares, in the face of such music making? Perhaps Haskil’s recording with Fricsay scales even greater heights – I hope to find out some day – but of the three I own, this ranks as not only the best Haskil has to offer, but as one of the best anyone has to offer. It sets a high standard for others to try to reach. Fortunately, at least in my collection, a number of artists do play as well, or so near to it that one must sit amazed at their artistic achievement.

    Such is the case with Rudolf Serkin’s 1961 recording with George Szell and the, no, not Cleveland Orchestra, but the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. The orchestral opening is cutting, forceful, and precise, as one might expect from Szell. By way of contrast, Serkin’s first arrival is surprisingly soft and delicate. Serkin can hammer at the keyboard and can be a bit unrelenting at times, and though such an approach would not be entirely out of place in this of all Mozart concertos, he does not succumb to anything remotely sounding unpleasant. Okay, so he doesn’t produce the broadest color palette, but that is irrelevant. As a result of his approach, his playing is not as cleanly articulated as Haskil’s last recording. His legato soothes and invites. He never overpowers the proceedings. Serkin delivers a top-notch rendition of the LvB cadenza, filled with nuance and sensitivity to go with the inherent drama. The second movement provides more of the same. The quieter passages are something of an oasis. And little touches abound. There is a brief passage where the first cello accompanies the pianist, and here it sounds lovely and appropriately fleeting. Perhaps the proceedings feel a bit monochrome at times, but that’s not a major concern. The finale opens briskly and urgently – more so than the first movement – and conductor, orchestra, and pianist are all in accord. Despite the feeling of some urgency, a sense of joy can’t help but shine through from time to time. I can’t say this recording belongs in the top tier, but it certainly belongs among the near-great recordings of this piece.

    I wish the same applied to Friedrich Gulda’s 1974 recording with Claudio Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic. Here, the opening revels in drama, sounding almost like outtakes from Don Giovanni at times. Given that Abbado headed La Scala at the time, the approach makes sense. He never strays from this basic approach. Gulda offers something else. His first appearance sounds almost sorrowful. The incisive staccato playing followed by some blurry legato arpeggios gives one the impression that Gulda sees the piece as an ultimately dark work with an undercurrent of melancholy. A byproduct of his approach is a somewhat droopy sound at times. Some fine touches throughout and an LvB cadenza that clearly finds Gulda in his element help ameliorate the shortcomings. The second movement has an unexpectedly sentimental feel to it, and while I prefer a different approach, it has it good points. The final return of the opening theme, for instance, is especially effective, eliciting a perfect blend of meltingly beautiful and disarming sound with a bittersweet soul. The final movement returns squarely to the dramatic, theatrical approach, and this time, Gulda seems more animated and involved in the music and less intent on bending the music to his will. It’s not a bad recording – not at all – but I certainly won’t reach for this first if I want a maximally satisfying version. It makes a fine alternative recording.


    Cont’d . . .

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    Junior Member Todd's Avatar
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    No allowances need be made for the next recording: Annie Fischer’s late 1950s recording with Adrian Boult and the Philharmonia. Now, Annie Fischer is one of my favorite artists, and I’ve yet to hear a recording by her that I don’t like. So, with that in mind, this is a wonderful recording! The dark and powerful opening presages the unabashedly romantic interpretation to come. Annie’s first entry is bolder and more assertive than anyone else’s thus far. Her muscular playing may seem more appropriate to LvB than Mozart, but that’s not the case! Her playing is all about strength and passion. Dainty Mozart this is not. Listen to the sharp trills, the pounding (but never harsh or clangy) left hand chords! Relish the subliminally defiant right hand figurations! Her LvB cadenza is LvB. But she backs off when necessary to reveal some beauty and tenderness, as in the gently brooding second movement, which comes across as a lesson in, well, contemplative Sturm und Drang musicianship. She’ll slow and soften things a bit here and there, but don’t let that fool you; even here, passion is the most notable trait. The finale is energetic and propulsive, never letting up, and perfectly in sync with the rest of the interpretation. Once again, Annie delivers a perfect LvB cadenza. This recording represents the very essence of the big-band, old-fashioned approach. If you don’t like such an approach, well, first, shame on you, and second, listen elsewhere. Me, I love it.

    The next recording in my survey is something of a rarity: Maurizio Pollini performed three piano concertos with the Vienna Philharmonic in a concert in 1981. Karl Bohm was slated to conduct, but he had passed away, so Pollini conducted himself. The results? A mixed bag. First, Pollini does not immediately spring to mind when I think of great Mozart players. LvB, Schumann, Brahms, Schoenberg, Boulez, Chopin, sure, but Wolfie? His style just doesn’t seem to suit the classical master. And so it partially is here. Pollini’s playing is unerringly precise and cleanly articulated, which should surprise no one, but what goes missing is a sense of passion or urgency that suits this work so well. Indeed, the whole performance has a laid back feel to it. Everyone involved sounds as though they know the music well and are having a good time, but it never really ignites. Pollini’s conducting doesn’t exactly instill great confidence, either. The beginning orchestral passage is amorphous, smooth, and indistinct, except for the timpani that rather overpower the proceedings. (The sound of the drums is very deep and boomy, to boot.) About the only really interesting thing Pollini does is speed up the middle section of the second movement quite a bit, rendering it taut and springy. As to the piano playing, well, it is predictably extraordinary. His command is awesome, the LvB cadenzas are delivered without a hint of effort, and at times in the final movement Pollini brings to bear most of the tools in his formidable pianistic arsenal in a most convincing fashion. But for all of the interesting points, it just lacks a convincing and entertaining level of energy. Like the Gulda, it’s not bad, but it’s certainly not a top contender.

    The same can be said for the oldest recording in the survey, Bruno Walter’s 1937 recording, also with the Vienna Philharmonic. Here, Walter, too both plays and leads. His conducting skills are beyond reproach, and he extracts precisely what he wants. The playing and sound world are decidedly old fashioned, harking back to the 19th Century in style; it is all wonderfully anachronistic. The entire first movement is given a slightly dark and intensely romantic flavor, and within that context, Walter’s playing blends right in. His stylish rubato and desynchronized hands all sound worlds apart from everything else. Even Annie Fischer’s old-fashioned approach is modern by comparison. His technique certainly can’t match up with the best in the survey, but Walter plays quite well. The big letdown in the first movement is the cadenza, here written by Carl Reinecke (who?). It is out of place, a 19th Century virtuoso showpiece that bears precious little resemblance to the music surrounding it. The third movement cadenza suffers the same fate. Beyond that, the second movement is a study in syrupy, sentimental romanticism. Generally, such an approach sounds awful, but here I accept it as part of the experience. The finale puzzles: it is dizzyingly, almost cartoonishly fast, more Liszt than Mozart. Everything together obviously prevents this from becoming a great recording, but for an occasional lark, and a reminder of how things were, it is a fine document.

    Daniel Barenboim’s 1967 shot at the work with the English Chamber Orchestra, where he, too, conducts offers a nice compromise. Barenboim’s playing and overall approach is unabashedly romantic, but he discards most excesses. The orchestral opening and overall conception is big-boned and powerful, presenting Mozart through a Beethovenian lens. A few times during the piece, I was more reminded of LvB’s B flat concerto, but that’s okay, because I rather like that one. The English Chamber Orchestra, though small-ish, produce a big sound (partially thanks to the closely miked recording) with finely controlled strings and pronounced winds, with a notably piquant oboe. Nice touches abound: here, the drawn out chords immediately prior to the cadenza work. The cadenza is a hybrid. Barenboim uses the LvB cadenza as altered by Edwin Fischer. The fieriness remains, but in a somewhat tempered form. It has an of-the-moment feel that fits right in with the recording. A wise choice on the young Barenboim’s part. The second movement starts with strongly characterized playing by Barenboim and contains some extraordinary pianism throughout. (And dig the almost chant-like effect in the string accompaniment in places!) The middle section is measured and mannered, but in a very good way. And then there’s that lovely pianism again; Barenboim’s playing just before the orchestra returns in the final section is wondrous. The finale opens in a rush (though it’s not as fast as Walter’s) and sounds, well, rollicking. The blaring horn at about 2:35 is a big misfire, and Barenboim’s cadenza is a bit overindulgent, perhaps better suited to Schumann’s world than Mozart’s, but that barely detracts from the recording. This is a rich, lively, not-too-dark, and decidedly entertaining version that I have listened to many times in the past. I plan to continue that practice.

    Continuing with the keyboard-cum-pianist approach, I next selected Murray Perhia’s 1978 recording, also with the English Chamber Orchestra. The contrast with Barenboim could hardly be more different. Perahia offers a more subdued, less urgent, and certainly not very dark view of the work. His playing is all grace, subtlety, and nuance; his touch is light, his rubato discreet, his coloring delicate. Is it too dainty and salonish? No. It is supremely refined. An emphasis on taste and restraint reins in dynamics and tempi, and as a result, the LvB cadenza in the first movement does not satisfy the way it should. The second and third movements vary little in overall conception, though Perhia’s own third movement cadenza is short and fiery. Perhaps the recording as a whole could have benefited from more of the same. All told, this is a fine, smaller scale version that emphasizes different aspects of the piece. It’s not my top choice, though, and I can imagine some people might find it a bit boring.

    Cont’d . . .

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    Junior Member Todd's Avatar
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    The penultimate version in my survey is a singular recording that is difficult to compare to anything else. That’s because the pianist is Michelangeli, and the recording his 1989 concert with the NDR Symphony Orchestra with Cord Garben conducting. From start to finish, this is all about the pianist with very little concern about Mozart. Most of the time, such a focus would mean death for the recording, but not for Michelangeli. As with so many of his recordings from his last couple decades, every note, every dynamic shift, every use of the pedal, every everything is thoroughly thought through and meticulously presented. While hardly spontaneous or emotionally enriching, the sheer perfection of the playing is a wonder to hear. Within an arpeggio, Michelangeli can and does change the dynamic emphasis ever so slightly. The colors he extracts from the 88 keys are so diverse and gently shaded that most other pianists can sound crude by comparison. The minute accelerations and decelerations within passages are breathtaking. It’s all perfect. For those who cherish spontaneity and emotion over everything, this version will not appeal; for those who crave an impeccably prepared and structured overview, it might almost be indispensable. Mannered and egocentric this may be, but it stands as a marvel of pianism.

    That leads me to my final version, and I saved the best for last. I write, of course, about Robert Casadesus’ 1956 recording with George Szell and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. Szell opens the work with a remarkably lean, taut, and forceful opening. This is no wimpy Mozart! Casadesus enters, initially, in a relatively subdued manner, with the perfect level of restraint and heat (not too much!). Everything about Casadesus’ playing is just about perfect: it is superbly clean, flowing effortlessly between a not-too-sharp staccato and a just-fluid-enough legato, never sound harsh or muddy. His dynamic control is precise and attractive (and attractively variable). His coloring and pedaling are discreet. All of his strengths are revealed in the first movement cadenza, of unspecified provenance (I do believe it is Casadesus’ own): it is fleet, forward, assertive, brief, but squarely in the spirit of the piece, and it ends in a way that blends perfectly with the reemergence of the orchestra. In keeping with the fleet approach, the second movement is surprisingly swift, clocking in at only 7’53. Transparency and lightness of touch are the primary virtues. Szell backs off beautifully, supporting Casadesus with precisely executed piano playing to support the piano playing. The middle section is blazingly fast, outdoing all others in the survey. But the transitions to and from that middle sections are so perfectly done that it all feels right. The third movement, too, is blistering fast, but, unlike with Walter, it blends right in and never for a moment sounds contrived or inappropriate. Perhaps some of the lovely details go missing, and some subtlety is lost, but the energy and perfect touch all combine to make a wonderful recording that is hard to beat. Make that impossible to beat.

    So, a dozen versions of an unqualified masterpiece, all with different strengths and weaknesses. What to make of it all? Well, since none of the versions are really bad, one can deduce that this is a masterpiece that seems impervious to bad playing. Beyond that, the perfectly proportioned movements, instrumentation, and keyboard writing all invite one back time and time again. I just love this work, and after my survey I am convinced that it is woefully underrepresented in my collection. Surely I must sample Geza Anda, Andras Schiff, and probably a half dozen others. Of the versions I listened to, Robert Casadesus reigns supreme, but Clara Haskil (with Markevitch), Annie Fischer, and Daniel Barenboim all offer unique and useful insights. Even the least of my recordings offer value. Yes, the D minor concerto is one the great achievements in concerto writing. Damn, Mozart is good!

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