The year of 1985 may have been dedicated to celebrat ing the 300th birthdays of Bach and Handel, yet during that year, neither composer approached Mozart in the number of recordings issued bearing their names.
It was not that Mozart's 229th birthday held any special significance; rather, that he evidently remains the favorite of recording companies (particularly the smaller ones)--in spite of being consistently outsold by Beethoven and Brahms, an inexplicable contradiction of business logic.
Now, in the second quarter of 1986, a similar pattern seems to be emerging.
Mozart's 18 piano sonatas hardly rank with those of Beethoven in popular or critical esteem. After all, at least half a dozen of them are conventionally pretty, cut-to-order salon pieces. But another group, those with the Koechel Nos. 279, 310, 330, 332, 457 and 576, are prime Mozart.
This, then, is an uneven body of music that in its entirety seldom attracts the big-name pianists and major recording companies. It's therefore something of a surprise to find Daniel Barenboim tackling the whole lot for EMI/Angel, a particularly pleasant surprise in view of his past accomplishments vis-a-vis Mozart for that label.
Whereas Barenboim's Mozart concertos of a decade ago were disfigured by Romantic indulgences, these sonatas are crisply, propulsively delineated, with admirable clarity of articulation in contrapuntal passages (see K. 576) and sparing use of the sustaining pedal contributing to a becoming leanness of tone.
The LP version comes in two three-volume sets (DSC-3987, DSC-3988). In CD format, it's a whopping, costly, six-disc set (CDCF-47335). Either way, however, the performances are very fine and the recorded sound quite stunningly lifelike.
Pianists who persist in portraying Mozart as eternally innocent and China-doll fragile are represented on three recent releases. The young Hungarian Andras Schiff gives small-scale, flaccid performances of the Concertos in G, K. 453, and B-flat, K. 456, with Sandor Vegh timidly conducting the Camerata Academica of the Salzburg Mozarteum (London 414 289, LP or CD).
Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu team up for a slow-motion emasculation of the two-piano Sonata in D, K. 488, and the equally imposing Fantasy in F minor of Schubert (CBS 39511, LP or CD). Perahia and members of the English Chamber Orchestra jointly remove the backbone of the Quintet for Piano and Winds, K. 452 (with Beethoven's piano and wind quintet on CBS 42099, LP).
Stephen Lubin, on the other hand, is a vigorous and persuasively scholarly fortepiano soloist in the Concertos in A, K. 414, and B-flat, K. 450. The period-instrument orchestra, which Lubin conducts from the keyboard, is a polished New York group called, simply, the Mozartean Players (Arabesque 6552, LP).
Two new recordings of the Clarinet Concerto are more than mere additions to an already lengthy catalogue listing. Both employ reconstructions of Mozart's original score, in which the solo instrument is the short-lived basset clarinet in G, capable of playing four notes lower than the more-standard clarinet in A.
This earlier version is heard in a spectacularly virtuosic and spirited period-instrument performance by Antony Pay and the Academy of Ancient Music under Christopher Hogwood's direction (London/L'Oiseau-Lyre 414 339, LP or CD). The coupling has Michel Piguet as the lively, accomplished soloist in Mozart's Oboe Concerto in C.
Thea King is the solemn basset clarinetist and Jeffrey Tate the rigid conductor of the modern-instrument English Chamber Orchestra in an edition of the Clarinet Concerto that differs in numerous textual details from that of Pay and Hogwood (Hyperion 66199, LP or CD). In its discmate, Mozart's Clarinet Quintet, whose basset-clarinet version doesn't differ markedly from the one we've always known, the Gabrieli Quartet's warm-toned eloquence elicits sunnier playing from King.
The standard version of the Clarinet Concerto, published a decade after Mozart's death, can be had in a charmingly extroverted performance by 18-year-old Emma Johnson, here coupled with the Concerto for Flute and Harp as played by a pair of stylish, energetic veterans, flutist William Bennett and harpist Osian Ellis. Raymond Leppard, conducting the English Chamber Orchestra, lends witty support in both works (ASV Records 532, CD).
The great Serenades in E-flat, K. 375, and C minor, K. 388, for wind octet are newly recorded by two British groups: the Albion Ensemble (on Meridian 84107, CD), which comprises players from various London orchestras including the London Symphony's new principal clarinet, Andrew Marriner (son of Sir Neville); and (on Chandos 1144, LP) wind soloists of the Scottish National Orchestra under the baton of Paavo Jarvi (son of SNO Music Director Neeme Jarvi).
The Scottish players haven't quite the technical finesse of their English counterparts; nor does the presence of a conductor prove an advantage--it may even be an inhibiting factor, judging by the squareness of the Scots' interpretation as opposed to the Albion's relaxed phrasing.
Among various new recordings of the late symphonies, two are outstanding: a fast-paced, incisively dramatic period-instrument G-minor Symphony, K. 550 (with the Beethoven First Symphony), in which Frans Brueggen leads his Amsterdam-based Orchestra of the 18th Century (Philips 416 329, LP or CD); and characteristically jaunty, immaculately played performances from the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields under Neville Marriner of the Symphonies Nos. 38 (Prague) and 39 (EMI/Angel DS-38238, LP; CDC-7473342, CD).