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In 1802 music theorist Heinrich Christoph Koch praised Mozart’s concertos for their ‘passionate sense of dialogue’ between soloist and orchestra. His remark appears in the notes to Ronald Brautigam’s CD, although it’s the South African pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout and the Freiburger Barockorchester (FBO), on their first disc of Mozart piano concertos, who bring this sense of dialogue gloriously to life. Key to their success, as Bezuidenhout explains in his own CD note, was an experimental recording set-up – strings in a semi-circle behind him, winds in a line facing him: a layout designed to bring the winds ‘to the fore of the sonic picture’ and to allow ‘more natural and vivid interplay’ between piano and winds. These priorities are historically appropriate, reflecting the more innovatory aspects of Mozart’s later piano concertos, not least K453, one of the first to assign to the winds a prominent role, and K482, the first to feature clarinets. The result, as Bezuidenhout notes, is ‘the piano, playing both solo and continuo, darts in and out of the lush orchestral texture’; the listener is there too, in the midst of the action, hearing the music as if from the inside.

Perhaps it won’t be to all tastes, but I found this immediacy thrilling; the extreme textural and dynamic variations give the music terrific bite, especially in K482, with its extrovert tutti flourishes and pockets of hushed intimacy (enhanced by the reduction of strings to one-per-part). And if Bezuidenhout sometimes risks compromising the bigger picture in his scrutiny of the close- up – particularly striking in the Andante of the G major, where he turns gentle pathos into near despair – his playing is always imaginative and constantly engaging. He’s vivacious in the A major Rondo, delightfully zestful in K453’s buffa finale and subtle yet expressive throughout the dark-hued and bright- tinted contrasts of the magical E flat major work.

Bezuidenhout plays a recent copy of an 1805 Walter fortepiano, which is technically 20 years too advanced, but has a clear and pleasant tone. Ronald Brautigam’s fortepiano is a modern copy of a Walter from c1795; its slightly thinner, more pinched tone is presumably closer to Mozart’s own Walter (c1782) – but is his disc any closer to that Mozartian spirit of interaction? Certainly he and Die Kölner Akademie enjoy a good rapport (this is their third disc of Mozart concertos), though I’d describe it as a courteous rather than passionate relationship, and one that exists more between pianist and orchestra en bloc than between individual players. Die Kölner Akademie’s orchestral sound is smooth and more homogenous than the FBO’s, and their sculpted phrasing complements Brautigam’s own: everything is nicely shaped and crisply articulated, if a little detached. I enjoyed their brisk, coolly measured take on the relatively lighthearted G major Concerto, although a similar approach to K537 made its stylised elegance seem overly chilly and inscrutable. The disc will have its admirers, but that ‘passionate sense of dialogue’ is more fully embraced by Bezuidenhout and the FBO, who revel in the colours and dramas of Mozart’s richly volatile music.

GRAHAM LOCK Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Piano International, 2013 - ©Rhinegold Publishing