Daniel Isoir / La Petite Symphonie

Mozart: Concertos pour pianoforte Nos. 13, 14 & 27

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Be sure you know what you're getting into here: the Petite Symphonie represented in the graphics for this album is, in fact, a string quartet, augmented for two of the three Mozart concertos with winds and horns. The position of the performers is that this not only makes musical sense, but is in fact historically authentic; the performances are not arrangements of Mozart's piano concerto for string quartet and keyboard but are offered as the original items. This raises issues of intention and execution. The case for one-instrument-per-part performance, the Classical-period cousin to one-voice-per-part performance of Bach's choral works, is nowhere near as clear-cut as fortepianist Daniel Isoir seems to think. Mozart's testimony is of very little help. He did, it's true, say that some of his concertos, including the two earlier ones performed here, could be played a quattro, but he also said it was OK to leave out the winds, which is hardly an ideal solution. Taking the composer's statements as definitive simply ignores the fact that he was newly married, increasingly strapped for cash, and likely ready to agree to anything that would sell sheet music. As for other contemporary accounts of this kind of performance, it is once again wrong to evaluate the performance practices of Mozart's time against those of an era in which European musicians are well funded, even if not so well as formerly, by governmental institutions. If Mozart's concertos were performed with one instrument per part in Vienna, that may again have been because that was all someone could afford, not because it was a normal practice. This said, the execution here, as opposed to the intention, is superb, and if you're interested in trying out the one-instrument-per-part approach, this makes a good place to start. Isoir and his musicians are extremely sensitive to each other, and they make the most of the slight tempo fluctuations this approach enables. Best of all, Isoir is the first pianist to really pull off the trick of playing along with the orchestra in the tutti passages and then shifting gears for the solos: the naturalness with which this happens is remarkable. Particularly magical is the slow movement of the Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat major, K. 595, which loses its elegiac quality (anyhow the product largely of the retrospective knowledge that Mozart would be dead in a year) and sounds almost Schubertian. As historical performance this album is dubious; as music-making (and as engineering) it is quite fine.

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