There are a lot of recordings of Mozart piano concertos, which isn’t a reason not to record them again. What we need is a reason to listen. German-based Chinese pianist Haiou Zhang, an occasional visitor to Toronto, and his collaborators — German conductor Thomas Frey and the Heidelberg Sinfoniker — make a compelling case for their interpretations of Mozart’s Piano Concertos Nos. 20 (K466) and 21 (K467). Both completed in 1785, they make a fine album pairing. The first is dark-tinged, dramatic work that begins in D minor. The second is more lyrical, based in C Major.
All the big names have tackled these two masterpieces. Canadian Jan Lisiecki recorded this pair of concertos for Deutsche Grammophon for his big-label debut. Zhang and Frey, whose work is out on the German Haenssler Classic label, stands out from the sea of possibilities for its overall boldness, freshness, and crispness.
Zhang’s technique is impeccable, but what really impresses is his unerring precision. His playing is hyper-articulated, and he extends the dynamics and phrasing to the limits of taste. While he plays like a modern piano virtuoso, what he is really doing is pushing the modern nine-foot Steinway through the same rigours as a fortepianist would have done to his instrument 240 years ago.
Conductor Thomas Frey is known for his historically informed interpretations. Because Zhang is actually behaving at the keyboard much in the same way Mozart might have, he and Frey are of beautifully like minds with the modern-instrument orchestra. This is dynamic, articulated Mozart performed with the intense immediacy of a period performance, but amplified by the modern instruments.
In other words, this may not be to everyone’s taste, but I find these performances compelling and bracing. This is seat-of-the-pants playing — not a way to describe most interpretations of the 18th century Viennese masters. There’s nothing sweet about this Mozart. He is dressed in his most colourful clothes, and sporting his brashest smile.
Haenssler Classics discs have never been plentiful in this part of the world, but the album is available on iTunes.
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