Even though Vladimir Ashkenazy is most often celebrated for his brilliantly virtuosic interpretations of Romantic repertoire, his skills in playing works of the Classical era are just as worthy, as proved by this 10-disc set from London of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's piano concertos. These performances span a period from 1966 to 1988, capturing a youthful and vigorous Ashkenazy playing and conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and the English Chamber Orchestra from the keyboard, in approved Mozartian fashion. All of the keyboard concertos are here, including the official 27 concertos for piano and orchestra, the Concerto for two pianos in E flat major, K. 365, the Concerto for three pianos in F major, K. 242, as well as the two Rondos K. 382 and K. 386. Ashkenazy's elegant playing has been highly praised by critics and placed on a level with his esteemed contemporaries Murray Perahia, Daniel Barenboim, and Alfred Brendel, all past masters of Mozart's primary medium of expression.
As the mysterious opening bars of the Kyrie gradually emerge into the light, we know that this recording of Mozart’s glorious Great Mass in C minor is a special one: the tempi perfect, the unfolding drama of the choral writing so carefully judged, and, above it all, the crystalline beauty of soloist Carolyn Sampson’s soprano, floating like a ministering angel. Masaaki Suzuki’s meticulous attention to detail, so rewarding in his remarkable Bach recordings, shines throughout this disc, the playing alert, the choir responsive, the soloists thrilling. And there is the bonus of an exhilarating Exsultate, Jubilate with Sampson on top form.
For this all-Mozart twofer from Sony, piano virtuoso Lang Lang, conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and the Vienna Philharmonic present a program of piano concertos, piano sonatas, and several short solo pieces that give a good sampling of the composer's keyboard output. The roster may provoke some cognitive dissonance, though, because Harnoncourt is best known for historically informed period interpretations of Mozart, while Lang Lang and the Vienna Philharmonic are more associated with a conventional, mainstream performance style. One might expect some compromise between the two camps, yet while the orchestra incorporates some aspects of Classical sound into its playing, it remains a modern orchestra of full size, and Harnoncourt doesn't ask for the tone colors and techniques he would demand of his own Concentus Musicus Wien. For the soloist's part, Lang Lang is rather restrained and sensitive to the character of the music, and apart from some showiness in his cadenzas, he shows less of the ebullience and bravura playing he otherwise shows in Liszt or Rachmaninov.
The sixth disc in this highly acclaimed series combine two works in which Mozart's powers as an orchestrator come to the fore. Concerto No. 18 in B flat major, K 456, is sometimes referred to as one of the composers military concertos on the basis of the march-like main theme of the first movement. But more striking is the variety of ways that Mozart employs the various groups of instruments: strings, wind instruments and, of course, the piano. This aspect certainly didn't pass unnoticed by a listener as initiated as Mozart's father Leopold: in a letter to his daughter Nannerl he described how his enjoyment of the orchestral interplay had brought tears to his eyes.
Even though Marc-André Hamelin is world-renowned for his astonishing virtuosity and a massive repertoire of the most demanding piano works, including those of Scriabin, Godowsky, and Sorabji, he has startled many with his sudden turn toward the placid domain of Classical music. First came his critically acclaimed recordings of Franz Joseph Haydn's keyboard sonatas, which were surprise best-sellers for Hyperion, and here he offers a double-CD of the piano sonatas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with a handful of short pieces to round out the discs. Since Hamelin's fine reputation precedes him, suffice it to say that these are among the most meticulously played and wittily interpreted renditions of these pieces ever recorded. Even though Mozart's sonatas are tamer than the showpieces of pianistic derring-do normally associated with Hamelin, they are endlessly fascinating for their skillfully crafted details, subtle phrases, and elegant expressions. Since the issue isn't how Hamelin manages all the notes, but instead how he shapes them into such entertaining and moving performances, there is much food for thought in this album, and anyone who attentively follows his playing will find a deeper appreciation of Mozart. Highly recommended.