Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 23 & 27

Christoph Eschenbach, pianist and conductor; Houston Symphony. HDTT HDCD254.

HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) is a company that usually remasters classic, commercially available prerecorded tapes and LP's in the public domain, often to stunningly good sonic effect.  But here they apparently have done something a little different. No, the sound is still remarkably good; it's that I don't believe anybody ever commercially released the 1987 digital tape they used. If these Mozart piano concertos did appear on CD somewhere, the fact escaped me; nor could I find any reference to such a release in a Google search. In any case, let's take a look first at the performances and then at the sound.

Pianist and conductor Christoph Eschenbach took over as the principal conductor of the Houston Symphony in 1988 and continued in the post until 1999. He recorded the two piano concertos reviewed here in 1989, just a year after his tenure began, and in them he conducts a pared-down orchestra from the keyboard while acting as the soloist.

Eschenbach begins with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major (1786), the first movement of which the pianist plays in a bouncy, ebullient manner, yet with a fair amount of grace and lyricism. The movement consists of three main themes, Eschenbach indulging in a good deal of speed variations among them, sometimes effectively, sometimes not. The central Adagio seems even more solemn and melancholic than Mozart intended; however, Eschenbach establishes a lovely poetic feeling throughout. The Allegro finale finds the pianist and orchestra at their happiest, maintaining a steadier tempo than in the opening and conveying wonderfully high spirits.

Next, we get the Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major (1791), which was Mozart's last foray into the piano concerto field and may have even marked the composer's final public appearance as a soloist. No. 27 is one of his most-mature works, one of his best integrated, and one of his easiest to like. The three movements hang together beautifully in terms of tone and theme, something we generally wouldn't see until the nineteenth century.

Eschenbach shows a steady control all through the work, bringing out both the seriousness and the playfulness of the piece. Nevertheless, he sometimes overemphasizes the contrasts and mood changes and loses a little subtlety along the way. Then, even though he takes the Larghetto at a tad too slow a pace for my liking, there is a lovely radiance about the final movement that is hard to resist.

Recorded live, digitally, in 1987 at Jones Hall, Houston, Texas, the sonics are excellent in most regards. The big exception I'll mention up front: It's the "live" part. If you can tolerate the coughs, wheezes, shuffling, and other extraneous audience noises during quieter passages, particularly during the middle, slow movements of each concerto, plus the nasty outbursts of applause that follow each selection, you'll probably love the sound. It's very realistic, very much alive, very much a you-are-there experience.

The sound is a little closer than I'd like, too, but it exhibits a wonderful transparency, with plenty of air and space around the instruments. Although the piano seems a trifle thin, possibly a result of the acoustic, which isn't the warmest or most resonant, there is a pleasant sparkle to the piano notes and taut, clearly defined transients. Perhaps because of the slightly close miking, there isn't a lot of depth to the orchestral stage, either, just a very wide stereo spread. The strings are a touch forward, again accounting for the miking. The result is sometimes startlingly natural and lifelike. Besides, I'm sure a host of people enjoy live recordings and don't mind audience noise at all. Indeed, it may transport them more comfortably to the live event. If that's the case with you, this HDTT transfer may be exactly your ticket to an hour or so of unadulterated bliss.

HDTT make the music available in a variety of formats for a variety of pocketbooks, from Redbook CD's, 24/96 DVD's, and HQCD's to 24/96 and 24/192 Flac downloads for playback on high-end computer audio systems. For details, visit


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