Call me heartless, dry, and cerebral if you like, but Maurizio Pollini is one of my favorite pianists. He has an understated way with Mozart that seems to strike just the right tone, at once technically brilliant (definitely not that wilting approach to Mozart of some more cloying players) and yet contained. For the second disc in what is now hopefully a series of Mozart concertos, Pollini has partnered again as pianist and conductor with a reduced, Classical version of the Vienna Philharmonic for this live recording. Although I was listening to Pollini's recording of K. 453 and 467 last year, I never got around to reviewing it, but this second volume prompted me to go back to it in my MP3 player.
Mozart, Piano Concertos K. 414 and 491, M. Pollini, Vienna Philharmonic
(released May 13, 2008)
Deutsche Grammophon B0010994-02
K. 453 and 467 (2007)
The new disc combines two rather different concerti, beginning with K. 414 from an optimistic Mozart, newly arrived in Vienna and trying to drum up interest in his music with concerti for himself to play. Pollini opts for a bright, easy performance, preferring to play Mozart's own cadenzas. For K. 491, Mozart's cadences (if there were any) have not survived, so Pollini plays those composed by Salvatore Sciarrino. K. 491, set in the melancholy key of C minor, is a much more introspective concerto from the end of the period when Mozart was writing and playing lots of them. The second movement has gorgeous wind solos, and Pollini hits just the right tempi.
The advantage of this arrangement is the empowerment of conductor-less performance, meaning generally that the players listen more closely to one another in order to synchronize, without the galvanizing presence of an imperious baton. How many times have you seen a conductor start a concerto in a tempo completely at odds with the soloist's ideal one? Having the soloist conduct does not mean that all will instantly align, of course, or even that the soloist will be able to set the best tempo for himself, but it does make the dialogue between soloist and orchestra more direct. (For comparison, there is Pollini's recording of K. 488, the other A major Mozart concerto, also with the Vienna Philharmonic but with Karl Böhm conducting, with Beethoven's fifth concerto -- and it's still pretty great).
The Pollini series (hopefully) is in obvious competition with EMI's series of Mozart concerti, currently also at two discs, combining Leif Ove Andsnes and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. Both are great choices for those who prefer modern instruments, although in the comparison Pollini likely loses out for most listeners because they are live recordings, with every murmur and hum from Pollini captured along with audience and other hall noise. (In the only concerto yet done by both teams, K. 453, Andsnes has the edge overall to my ears.) For my money, though, the best possible choice for Mozart keyboard concerti (but definitely not for the HIP-averse) are the L'Oiseau-Lyre recordings with Robert Levin (improvising extensively) on fortepiano, Academy of Ancient Music, and Christopher Hogwood. Nos. 5, 14, 16 have been re-released, but now that Decca has brought back L'Oiseau-Lyre, it should re-release the entire set (and likely will soon).