Mozart: Piano Concertos K. 414 & 491

Maurizio Pollini/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (DG 4777167)

18 May 2008 4 stars

Pollini: MozartAlthough this disc of Mozart piano concertos isn't, as the press blurb would have us believe, only Maurizio Pollini's second Mozart album (he recorded a couple of concertos with Karl Böhm, also on DG, as well a 2006 release, similarly conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra from the keyboard), it true that the composer doesn't feature much in his discography. This is surprising given that his famous Chopin interpretations are praised for their classical poise, and that same sovereign technical command and aristocratic keyboard manner work extremely well in Mozart. The 2006 release of concertos was extremely well received and this new disc, featuring Nos. 12 and 24 (K. 414 in A and K.491 in C minor), is also a high-quality affair.

The first thing I noticed was the transparency and detail of the Vienna Philharmonic's playing. In the exposition of the A major concerto's first movement, I was impressed in particular by the way Pollini had encouraged the players to bring out some of the details of the inner-parts, which so often pass unnoticed. Throughout the disc, too, the orchestra's wind players are consistently excellent, and under Pollini's direction, they are always in the foreground. In the C minor work, scored with a much fuller complement of wind instruments – including clarinets and flutes – one is constantly reminded of how much essential musical material is entrusted to these instruments, and all the players bring their lines out beautifully, each instrument with its own character. Listen, for example, to the development section of the C minor's opening Allegro, launched by the bassoon in unusually robust fashion.

The Vienna Philharmonic, described on the publicity material as 'the world's finest Mozart orchestra', is famously strong-willed, so it's difficult to tell how big a role Pollini himself has had in shaping their performance of the orchestral part. However, pianist and orchestra are definitely at one, and Pollini's own playing reflects perfectly the poise and sheer quality of his orchestra. This is playing of refinement that makes up for what it lacks in wit and playfulness by possessing rare integrity and single-mindedness of purpose.

I felt, though, the performance of the later, darker C minor Concerto was more satisfying than the slighter, more genial A major work. In the latter, there were times when Pollini came across as a little unsmiling, with some of the ornaments in particularly seeming unnecessarily forceful. The performance was taped live and Pollini's touch starts off a little heavy, but it takes no time to settle down, with smooth runs and carefully controlled chords. While some might miss the extra sparkle, it's refreshing not to hear this Mozart overburdened with musical winks and nods. His way in the Andante is touching in its simplicity and the Rondeau – started by a wonderfully alert statement of the theme by the Vienna strings – is delightful. Here, at times, there's an enjoyable tension between the impish playing from the orchestra and Pollini's initially more straight-laced contributions; by the end of the movement, though, his playing sparkles too.   

If I have slight reservations about K.414, Pollini's approach is perfectly suited to the C minor concerto. Although nothing is done to obscure the sunnier moments, the darker, more ominous passages react well to the integrity of the reading. The outer movements have the requisite gravity, within Mozartian boundaries, while the central Larghetto is performed with exquisite control. My only quibble might be that Pollini fails to bring any sense of improvisation to the impeccable Salvatore Sciarrino cadenzas he uses.

In sum, then, a high quality release from Deutsche Grammophon. Pollini and the Vienna Philharmonic seem to feel that Mozart doesn't need any gimmicks or particular re-interpretation and these performances stand out simply by dint of their impeccable musicianship and instrumental virtuosity. Recommended.

By Hugo Shirley