* * 1/2 -- Dry and often without charm (yes, I mean it)
John Grabowski | USA | 02/09/2009
(2 out of 5 stars)
"This is actually a review of the entire three-disc boxed set, now out of print, that includes concerti Nos. 21-27 excluding No. 25. Since what I had to say about that set encompasses everything here, I decided to cross-post. (Take that, Amazon!) Mainly I'm annoyed by lazy reviewers (I'm starting to conclude there are almost no other kind) such as Amazon's Ted Libby who says these "brilliant" and "energetic" readings have set a standard that have never been surpassed. Aside from the meaningless puffery--this statement is about as meaningful as, "Our pizza is the best in town!"--these readings have certainly been surpassed for dynamics, nuance, attention to details in the score, and other technicals. These are things that can be examined bar by bar, not matters of pure opinion, and certainly can be discussed with more exactitude than "have never been surpassed." But really, to call their way with No. 24 "energetic" when we have recordings by Schnabel, Moravec, Zacharias, and others where one can do immediate A-B comparisons, to not note the frequent lack of dynamics when one can compare passages and follow along in a score smacks of hero-worship, the thing that kills art forms fastest. To say these recordings have "never been surpassed" in the light of Schnabel's superb recordings of Mozart both studio and live from the 1930s and 40s, signifies a lazy reviewer. So to set a balance, here's my review.
I know these recordings are venerated. Some even consider them "the best ever," whatever that means. But if you really sit down, wipe away all the hype, and listen with your ears open, you discover gray playing, an almost total lack of dynamics, phrasing that often rushes in rhythmic passages, and a general lack of poetry, grace and "air." As someone pointed out, these readings sound constricted, and while some of that undoubtedly is the poor recording quality and tight microphoning that Columbia forced on most of its recordings from that period, the fact is other pianists sound better than Casadesus. And the miking cannot be blamed for the lack of dynamics and variety in the passagework of these concertos. Oh, and there's all the warmth and humor...or lack of it.
There are a few moments of magic here and there. No. 27, one of Mozart's most unique works (and by extension one of the most unique works in the entire classical cannon) is given a great, wistful performance here. A particularly magic moment comes in the first movement development at the re-entrance of the solo piano at 6:05 on the track. Casa-D walks on air here. Too bad in many other sections he *races* the tempo.
I find Nos. 21 and 24 to be among the most disappointing in the set. In both he plays blandly, and Szell and the Clevelanders are not at their best game either, taking tempi in No. 24 that sound too slow, and not getting all the elegance out of No. 21. Compare their performances to Moravec with Marriner, or for No. 21 Brendel with Marriner, or Rosina Lhevinne with Jean Morel and the Juilliard Orchestra, or Maria Tipo with the Vienna Symphony and Jonel Perlea (I know some of these are not marquee names but they have produced very fine recordings); for No. 24 Clara Haskil and Igor Markevitch produce one of the all time greatest recordings ever; Schnabel is of great interest, though there's nervous racing again, but at least it's with passion, if one can endure the bizarre modern cadenzas, and I can, but purists may be put off. Moravec again with Marriner is outstanding, and for HIP there's the very dark and very dramatic Jos van Immerseel with Anima Eterna Orchestra--available, alas, only as a hard-to-find import. These readings make the present recordings sound bland by comparison.
For the fair readings of Nos. 22 and 23 in this set we have readings by Moravec and Christian Zacharias for 23, Brendel, Zacharias, and Annie Fischer for 22 that are at least as good if not better, and in better sound except for the Fischer. There's also a stunning No. 22 live (admittedly in poor sound) with Schnabel, Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic from November of 1941. Schnabel plays with an ease and grace here that's remarkable, and I suspect he didn't know the performance was being recorded, which loosened him up. If you like experiments in your Mozart No. 23, check out Howowitz/Giulini for a very controversial interpretation, especially in the slow movement. The concerto for two pianos, K. 365, is not one of Wolfie's better works in the genre, but the Lebeque sisters with Simon Bychkov are every bit as dazzling if not more so, and in better sound, than this performance with Robert and wife Gaby Casadesus, and Eugene Ormandy.
In short, I don't think the fact that these recordings are out of print is any artistic tragedy, unless you're a Casadesus or Szell completist. There are better recordings, in better sound, available of all these works. I do think that these recordings, for some reason, have suffered from overblown hype over the years, from people who hear this one version because they are told it is The One and then think they can do no better. They can. Just explore a little, and don't be so overwhelmed by reputation. And listen to *passagework* in a Mozart concerto, one of the surest ways to separate the men from the boys."