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It’s hard to believe that Mozart concertos played on period instruments by small-scale ensembles could sound so dissimilar. Yet the contrasts here are fascinating, particularly the distinctive timbres of the fortepianos, though both are historically appropriate choices, and the overall sound of the ensembles, though both favour the one-player-per-part policy that recent research suggests was common practice for many Viennese orchestras in the 1780s.

Daniel Isoir plays a modern copy of a 1780 Stein, the keyboard maker Mozart praised in a well-known letter of 1777; it has the bright, clipped tones you’d expect from a fortepiano with the light action and efficient dampers Mozart admired, and it fits beautifully with La Petite Symphonie’s treatment of K415, K449 and K595 as essentially chamber concertos. Arthur Schoonderwoerd, meanwhile, plays a modern copy of a 1782 Walter, comparable to the instrument Mozart owned. Schoonderwoerd claims his piano is in ‘a state close to that in which [Mozart’s] original could have been in 1782’; he also speculates that the Walter’s tone colour may have been similar to that of the Stein.

These discs suggest otherwise. Compared with Isoir’s Stein, Schoonderwoerd’s Walter has a tiny, tinkly tone, very like a harpsichord, and is frequently overwhelmed by Cristofori’s powerful orchestral sound. Such sonic discrepancy occasionally works, as in the D minor concerto’s sinister opening – which, as Robert Levin has argued, sounds especially dramatic on period instruments, since ‘the spindly vulnerability of the soloist... can be diabolically crushed by the dark mass of the orchestra’. The problem is that this happens repeatedly, and while I admire Cristofori’s ability to produce such a full sound, I nevertheless find it difficult to enjoy a disc of piano concertos on which the piano’s actual sound (and presence) is so diminutive.

Isoir and La Petite Symphonie forgo the orchestral grandeur we might expect to offer a more intimate, chamber-like sound world, in which the piano is clearly audible. The three concertos they’ve selected suit their small-scale forces. Mozart composed K415 and K449 to be performed ‘a quattro’ – that is, by piano and string quartet (albeit with the option of adding oboes and horns, as La Petite Symphonie do on K449). He omitted the trumpets and timpani from K595, which feels uniquely private among his later concertos. The ensemble’s transparent textures - and particularly their rebalancing of the conversation between piano and orchestra - refresh our perceptions of these works: the melting tenderness of K415’s Adagio and the skipping gaiety of K595’s final Allegro, for example, have rarely sounded so personal or so moving.

GRAHAM LOCK Read the full review on Agora Classica


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