This nine-volume set appears to be the only complete set of Mozart fortepiano concertos available. (Concertos one through four are omitted because they are early arrangements of other composer's piano sonatas.) The closest contender is Jos van Immerseel's 10-volume set (Channel Classics), from which – curiously – concertos 7 and 10 are missing. [Concertos #7 & 10 are for three and two pianos respectively. -Ed.]
But that isn't the most notable difference between these two collections. Malcolm Bilson plays with considerably more subtlety than Immerseel. In Concerto #24 his delicious use of rubato at the fortepiano's first entrance is coyly suggestive. In contrast, Immerseel's straight-forward approach lacks imagination. For the lovely Larghetto in II, Bilson gives each note its own character, even its own physiognomy. Some notes have craggy features, others are round and voluptuous. Although fortepianos have higher decay rates than their 20th Century cousins, Bilson manipulates that decay with such skill you can feel the tail of silence quiver. Immerseel plunks away as if he's being paid piece rate. John Eliot Gardiner's English Baroque Soloists are ideally mated with Bilson. The recording is so well engineered that the orchestra never overcomes the soloist. There is excellent harmonic balance, unlike the muffling that occasionally occurs between the Anima Eterna and Immerseel. The chromatic Piano Concerto #20, that stunning precursor to Romanticism so beloved by Beethoven, is never too romantic in Bilson's hands, a snare into which Steinway-wielding pianists often fall.
I don't care for the cardboard CD sleeves. While I applaud the abandonment of jewel boxes, I can't figure out how to extract the CD without sticking in my finger and dragging it by the hole.
Too bad Mozart's early concertos appear so seldom in the repertory. Piano Concerto #15's opening allegro, for example, scintillates like sunlight on a choppy lake. Fortepiano virtuoso Robert Levin joins Bilson in performing the consistently dazzling Piano Concerto #10. Even the obscure Piano Concerto #16 rears up and addresses the heavens in its first two minutes.
Copyright © 2001, Peter Bates