The bicentennial of Mozart's death has brought a maelstrom of activity from the record companies. All of the majors are celebrating with ambitious projects and one of them -- Philips Records -- will have finished recording every note written by the Salzburg master by the year's end.
But no new records are likely to be more beautiful than several sets of recently reissued performances by the pianists Artur Schnabel, Edwin Fischer, Walter Gieseking and Solomon of Mozart concertos on EMI's mid-priced "References" line.
Some of these performances -- which date from the early 1930s to the middle 1950s -- have ridiculously anachronistic features in the orchestral parts, such as an overuse of string portamento. But in pianistic terms, Mozart concerto performances do not get any better than these.
Although he is arguably regarded as history's greatest composer, Mozart did not always enjoy such a reputation. In fact, when Schnabel (1882-1951) and Fischer (1886- 1960) made their first recordings of the concertos in the early 1930s, the only Mozart concerto in the standard repertory was the D-minor (K. 466). These recordings, therefore, are part of the reason Mozart grew to his current stature.
Of the two pianists, Schnabel had the more important international career. But Fischer was an enormously influential figure. Although no pianist can be said to have studied with him -- as, for example, Clifford Curzon or Leon Fleisher studied with Schnabel -- Fischer's occasional group master classes profoundly influenced Alfred Brendel, Paul Badura-Skoda, Daniel Barenboim and others. (Badura-Skoda has said that his widely read "Interpreting Mozart at the Keyboard" is much indebted to Fischer's teaching). Such younger pianists as Andras Schiff, Richard Goode and Peter Serkin have talked about how much they admire Fischer's recordings.
Fischer's performances on a three-CD set of five concertos (K. 453, 466, 482, 491 and 503), two sonatas and several shorter pieces are wonderful. In the G-major Concerto (K. 453), for example, he doesn't dawdle over details -- swooning over how beautiful it all is -- the way too many pianists do today. There's a sense of pace, of proportions, and a feeling -- once the performance is over -- that the concerto has been experienced as a whole.
Fischer was never the most polished of pianists -- he has some problems in the violent crossing of hands in the storm section of the D-minor concerto's second movement -- but he had an ability to solve problems that trouble other musicians. In other hands, the K. 330 Sonata in C major can sound superficial; in Fischer's it has an abundance of innocent poignance and joy. In the great K. 482 E-flat Concerto, Fischer's music making results in a spacious grandeur that surpasses the impressive recent achievements of Brendel, Malcolm Bilson and Mitsuko Uchida.
But great as he was, Fischer was no Schnabel. Listening again to the performances on the latter's three-CD set -- as well as to some "live" performances from the 1940s on pirate labels -- demonstrates anew why it is Schnabel's performances (and not Fischer's) that have rarely been out of the catalogue. A recording (AS Disc) of a 1941 broadcast by Schnabel and Bruno Walter, conducting the New York Philharmonic, of the same K. 482 concerto has a first movement even more regal than Fischer's, a second movement more intensely tragic and a final one that better captures the music's dancelike gaiety.
Schnabel's justly celebrated thrust in melodic lines can be heard in the way he shapes the six tiny phrases in the piano's opening statement in the D-minor Concerto. Fischer and Gieseking make one too aware of the way in which the music stops and starts; Schnabel's freer playing subsumes those tiny details into a larger design and makes the music reach a precipitous climax. By the time this record was made (1948), Schnabel had more than a few chinks in his technical armor -- the broken octave passagework in the first movement is labored -- but this is still a tremendous performance. Even better are a ferocious C-minor Concerto, an incredibly light-fingered F-major Concerto (K. 459) and a dreamy C-major Concerto (K. 467). In the famous andante of the latter -- it was used for the film "Elvira Madigan" -- Schnabel molds the phrases with heart-piercing grace equaled elsewhere only by Dinu Lipatti.
Compared to playing of this caliber, the Mozart interpretations of Gieseking (1895-1956) make the composer sound a bit like a china doll. But if Gieseking's versions of the Concertos in D minor and C major (K. 503) are somewhat slick, he is perfectly suited to the delicate A-major concerto (K. 488). Every time Gieseking played the poignant second subject of the first movement, I wanted to hit my CD player's repeat button.
Less famous, but no less great, than any of the aforementioned )) artists was Solomon (1902-1988) -- he never used his patronym, Cutner -- whose career was tragically cut short by a stroke in 1956. The three concertos on this disc -- K. 450, K. 488 and K. 491 -- show that Solomon was one of the century's most insightful and expressive pianists. His K. 488 may not be quite as subtle as Gieseking's and his K. 491 not as dramatic as Schnabel's, but they are no less compelling.
Solomon had an ability for simplicity and directness that is matched today only by Maurizio Pollini. His version of the K. 450 Concerto in B flat is the greatest ever recorded. No other pianist tints the slow movement's line with so much expressive color without exceeding its classical bounds, and he plays the final rondo's hunting theme with the kind of perfection that makes its innocence emerge as ripe wisdom.