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Most people play music, whatever the genre, to fit their mood. With regard to classical music, I tend to play Vivaldi when full of the joys of Spring and Beethoven when I'm feeling introspective. The purity of sound and mathematical precision of Mozart's music, however, seems to fit any mood and this is especially true of his many concertos. The title of my review is from a quote by Colin Davis 'Mozart is expressing something that is more than human' and I can't argue with that. This is music which seems to transcend the physical human world moving the listener into the realms of spirituality far more effectively than any religion.
One of the best interpreters of Mozart's piano music is Vladimir Ashkenazy, a Russian by birth who for the last 50 or more years has been at the top of the classical music tree both as a concert pianist and also, latterly as a conductor. You don't have to be a musical genius or even a pianist to recognise great piano playing when you hear it. Ashkenazy has a lightness of touch and plays with such verve and passion that even if he was playing Chopsticks it would sound sublime. It's a strange thing but several people could play the same note on the piano and it would sound different every time. Most of us would just strike the key and hope for the best. It may sound fanciful but Ashkenazy seems to caress the keys and they respond by producing notes which resonate in the listener's heart.
This particular recording is not a new one, recorded in 1997 with the Philharmonia Orchestra, one of Britain's best orchestras and certainly one with a long and successful recording tradition. On this two disc set, there are only five of the 27 concertos Mozart wrote for piano and orchestra and although the album claims these are the 'greatest' it would be perfectly acceptable to pick any other five concertos and claim the same because Mozart couldn't have written a bad piano concerto if he tried. He's regarded as one of the greatest composers who ever lived for a reason and that is that he was a musical genius, a fact that is nowhere evidenced more clearly than with his piano concertos which seem to encompass every mood from calm serenity to passionate elation and all within the strict musical form of the classical period. Unlike Beethoven, Mozart tended to play by the musical rules of his day.
Vlademir Ashkenazy likewise couldn't play the piano badly if he tried and between the composer and the pianist, there is a symbiosis which produces some sublime music.
Concerto No 21 in C
The first movement begins in a stately manner with just the violins before being joined by the brass and then the full orchestra producing a robust and dramatically exciting introduction to the piano. The orchestra fades into the background and the piano takes centre stage, beginning by racing up and down the scales producing a sound which demonstrates the truth of the phrase 'tinkling the ivories' before taking on a more metronomic rhythm and introducing the main musical theme which will be expanded in the second movement.
This second movement again has the orchestra introduce the piece in tones which are gentle, serene and lyrical but when the piano takes up the theme and repeats what the orchestra has just played, the emotion seems to be ramped up and as the movement progresses the overall mood changes to something more sombre and filled with sadness, probably due to the key change from major to minor, and it's easy to see why this particular part of the concerto should have been chosen to represent the theme for the doomed lovers in the film 'Elvira Madigan'.
The mood picks up again in the final movement with the orchestra playing the strain and the piano repeating the musical phrases before again taking over as principal instrument with lots of soaring arpeggios and a demonstration of the musical scale. As the piano plays, the listener gets a sense of the tension building, returning one last time to the main music theme of the concerto before the orchestra joins in for a final full orchestral flourish of three dramatic notes.
Concerto No 24 in C minor
This isn't one of my favourite Mozart piano concertos although this more than any other composition by Mozart signposts the direction in which classical music will go and it's possible to hear elements within the piece which will be taken and further expanded by Beethoven.
The minor key is dominant in this piece which spreads a sense of the dark and the sombrely dramatic. The full orchestra begins the piece setting the scene with the strings taking a lesser part and with small cameos for the woodwind section, the oboes and clarinets in particular. When the piano joins in, the notes are far more dramatic and strident than in the previous concerto but the mood is still melancholic introspection.
The melancholia continues into the second movement with the piano alone picking out the theme in muted tones before being joined by an equally muted orchestra. Despite being a piano concerto, the orchestra is more dominant in this movement with the piano almost taking a secondary role. Whilst the third movement continues in the same sombre vein, the piece becomes slightly livelier and once again the piano becomes the primary instrument responding and embellishing the themes played by the orchestra. In fact, it isn't until almost the end of the third movement that the mood picks up and ends in typical Mozart fashion with three dramatic full orchestrated notes.
Concerto No 25 in C Major
This is another concerto that I would not have included in my top five. This piece begins dramatically with full orchestra and again it's possible to spot the influence this must have had upon Beethoven because there are elements here which Beethoven used in his symphonic pieces. Despite this not being a favourite of mine, the piano elements are wonderful and never fail to raise goosebumps. Although this piece is in C major, there are moments when the key definitely changes into a minor one taking the mood from dramatic to melancholy and back again and throughout the piece the piano takes an authoritative stance and although the arpeggios are there, there is less tinkle and more drama demonstrating the sheer versatility of the piano over all other musical instruments.
Concerto No 23 in A Major
This is by far my favourite composition by Mozart. It's simply one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written and when played by Ashkenazy it transcends mere beauty to become sublime. It has everything: it's lyrical and romantic, dramatic and emotive and I defy anyone listening to it not to be moved. The overall mood of the piece is bright and cheerful, certainly in the first movement, although underlying the merry tempo is a more subdued subtext which is frequently emphasised by the string section of the orchestra.
The slow second movement is perfection. It's a deceptively simple piece of music but the arrangement of notes is such that it taps straight into the listener's deepest emotions. This is music to make you weep, not because of sadness but simply for the sheer beauty of it all. In contrast the final movement ramps up the tempo once more bringing the piece to a triumphal end with the piano and orchestra receiving equal honours for dramatic interpretation.
Concerto No 20 in D Minor
The concerto begins quietly with the orchestra setting the scene before suddenly turning from quiet to dramatic. When the piano joins in, it returns the mood to quiet introspection with the orchestra playing quietly but with a sort of suppressed excitement before building through many soaring arpeggios to another dramatic peak. These alternate moods are repeated until the movement reaches its surprisingly muted and subdued end.
The piano begins the slow movement giving the theme before being taken up by the orchestra. The general mood of the second movement is lyrical and slightly downbeat and again ending quietly. The third movement opens still in muted mode although the tempo is raised slightly as the piece progresses and it isn't until well beyond the half way point in this final movement that the piano and orchestra generate anything approaching the dramatic although the piece does end on a triumphal high.
I've reviewed each concerto as it appears on the discs which isn't in date order so I can only assume they are the top five in order of preference, though quite whose preference they might be I'm unsure. For me, with the exception of concertos number 21 and 23, these aren't the five greatest piano concertos Mozart ever wrote. I would have added to the two I've already mentioned, numbers 9, 13 and 27 to make my favourite five. That being said, Vlademir Ashkenazy's playing is so fantastic that one shouldn't complain.
I do have one complaint, however, and that is that in order to divide the music up between the two discs the first movement of No 25 is on one disc and the rest of the piece on the other which disturbs the flow of the music somewhat.
Mozart said 'I pay no attention whatever to anybody's praise or blame. I simply follow my own feelings' and that is exactly what comes across in this collection which appears to be a demonstration of how Mozart's piano concertos developed in both mood and construction in the space of just a couple of years. The recording is made all the more enjoyable due to the wonderful piano skills of Vlademir Ashkenazy and it would certainly be a valuable addition to anyone's musical library.
This 2 disc set is widely available online with new copies beginning at £7.60 and MP3 downloads for a similar price.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 1. Allegro
2 2. Andante
3 3. Allegro vivace assai
4 1. (Allegro)
5 2. Larghetto
6 3. (Allegretto)
7 1. Allegro maestoso
Disc #2 Tracklisting
1 2. Andante
2 3. Allegretto
3 1. Allegro
4 2. Andante
5 3. Allegro assai
6 1. Allegro
7 2. Romance
8 3. Rondo (Allegro assai)