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Reviews: Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 21 & 23 - O'Hora/RPO/Carney

Reviews: 3

Review by brenda April 14, 2005 (7 of 7 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
First the performances. Ronan O’Hora is very much a name from the mid-90’s, when some of his recordings for Tring (especially his Grieg concerto) earned glowing reviews. He plays well enough here, but this isn’t an out and out recommendation, maybe because the competition is just so stiff.

The C major Concerto starts with a slightly cautious Allegro maestoso. The famous second movement follows after an almost brutally short pause (inadequate pauses are a feature of this series, so I’ve found). I found it a bit stereotyped, with a somewhat glamorous feel, - the Elvira Madigan effect?- and that isn’t helped by the recording which is too rich for the music (more on that later). Whereas Kovacevich makes you feel that his is an absolutely “inevitable” and “right" reading, O’Hara tries just a little too hard to convince.

The lovely A major concerto (no. 23) is also played too sweetly to be as characterful as it can be. I love the feeling with this work, at least in Perahia’s hands that, although the final movement contains some Mozartian jollity, the sublime slow movement has injected a sense of unease (as well as rapt beauty) which even the final movement cannot – and IMHO – should not - dispel. Here, the reading is too lacking in subtle contrasts, especially after starting with another cautious first movement.

As for the sound, the original 32 bit recording d(presented here as 24/96) does succeed in picking everything up (thanks to multi-miking using, according to the booklet “up to 48” sep’t mics) and, with rear speaker support, provides a nice soundstage. However, be careful of the volume setting, - I had to play well under my usual setting after finding the first bars loud and shrill. Cut at too high a level? The sound is too shrill in some parts, but also a bit too rich and bassy in others, neither characteristic really suiting the music.

The presentation and packaging is also a bit curate-ish, in that the photography, slip cases and proper super jewel boxes are of a very good standard but the artist's biographies are now quite anachronistic, ceasing with activities at about the original recording date (mid-90’s). According to Membran (the distributor), the Queen Mother and Lord Menuhin are still patron and President of the RPO, now that’s posthumous dedication for you. Couldn’t a few quid have been spared to update at least the soloist and conductor biographies? It adds a silly cheap touch to the whole enterprise.

In sum, at the bargain price (I got it from jpc for just 5 Euros) it’s acceptable until 'a better SACD comes along, but it doesn’t stand up alongside Kovacevich (21) and Perahia (23). I havent heard the remastering of the Geza Anda version of the 21st, but remember the performance fondly (though it, again, doesn't quite cut it next to Kovacevich.

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Review by drdanfee December 16, 2005 (5 of 5 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
MOZART BY RONAN O'HARA & RPO LED BY CARNEY: VERY FINE, SONGFUL, DEVOTED. MOZARTIAN BLISS TO MY EARS.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
I have enjoyed these two performances of Mozart’s piano concertos (No. 21 KV 476, and No. 23 KV 488 respectively) ever since they were released on redbook CD in the Tring RPO series some years back. Ignore the fact that neither O'Hara, nor Carney, are super-music big-label brand names in the ongoing world retail sales competition to find a classical cross-over to Michael Jackson's Thriller album from some years back. The first thing I learned from studying music with a teacher whose husband played double bass in one of the really big USA orchestras on the east coast was that good music can come from mostly unknown, everyday musicians - and indeed usually does in real life. Imagine my surprise then, to find that these releases are now offered in superaudio. I gathered from the listing page that these new super audio editions were probably like the BMG – now Sony BMG – re-releases of famous recordings by the likes of Heifitz, Reiner, Rubinstein, Van Cliburn and so forth. I expected high resolution remasterings, then, of basic original two or three-channel stereo master tapes.

Imagine my greater surprise when these recordings began to arrive in full SACD hybrid fashion. You get the red book standard CD stereo, plus the SACD stereo, plus SACD multi-channel. The added channels worried me a bit when I noticed they were possible. What if someone at the mastering center were mucking about, like the early days of mono master tapes converted into what the marketing people called, electronic stereo? What if the high frequencies came out of one channel, and the low frequencies another? What, what, what mischief might have been done?

My worries were immediately soothed, the moment the player began to spin. First, the Pioneer omni-player I use (DV-563A) identified the disc as SACD. Secondly, telling my multi-channel B&K Ref 30 preamp to do five channels of analogue unprocessed audio just got me – five channels of ungimmicked, real sound.

Had these performances not been so good, my anxious fussing about the remasterings would not have mattered much. As it stands, however, Ronan O’Hara does a very fine job in both of these piano concertos. Mozart as a keyboard player was famous for his legato – not an easy effect to achieve on the early fortepiano, by the way – and O’Hara probably has an easier time of it, just to the extent that legato is somewhat easier to get from modern instruments, than from earlier ones. (This holds true for the keyboards and the stringed instruments, at least, or so I’m led to believe by reading and listening.)

Of course, legato is only part of the real Mozart story in music. You need intelligent phrasing as you play from beginnings, through the rising or falling middles, to the rising or falling ends of phrases. Even more thoughtful genius will shape phrases into something very like musical paragraphs of musical narrative, then into pages as it were, then into parts of movements, then into whole movements.

Elegantly, Ronan O’Hara does much of this when he plays Mozart. He seems to have no need to impose some ear-catching external virtuoso personality upon the notes – a trap into which even the high likes of players like Argerich, Pletnev, Ashkenazy, Barenboim or others with big reps may fall. Instead, we get the whole Mozart – who like Beethoven after him and Chopin after that – could make the piano an extension of his complex musical self. The pure lyricisms of the greatest Mozart opera arias are here, and so, too, are the intimate inflections of the Mozart lied. If you don't yet know the Mozart lied, you may want to have a listen.

The RPO is fully present and accounted for, led by Jonathan Carney (who eventually ended up for a while as concertmaster of the Bournemouth Symphony). Carney comes from a very musical family, six members of whom graduated from the Juillard School in New York City. He brings every ounce of self-effacing musicianship to bear on partnering with the pianist. Their work together on behalf of superlative Mozart playing has me reaching for memories of a much older generation. I am thinking of the likes of people like Alicia de Larrocha, Clara Haskil, and Lili Kraus – keyboardists who above all lived with their preferred repertoires until it would seem to an raptly-held concert audience that they had begun to merge into the music, and merge the music into themselves.

Many performers pay lip service to these sorts of musical ideals – but few are captured achieving it on discs in high resolution, multi-channel audio. With these performances we do not quite yet stand on the highest peaks of the recorded legacy in Mozart, but we are very near the Olympian atmospheres we have come to know from certain enduring and special recordings that Moravec, Haskil, Michelangeli, and Kraus in Mozart have revealed to our ears and to our hearts.

You can get this disc because you want to revel in good Mozart in high resolution, muti-channel audio. You can get this disc because you need the best Mozart you can afford on a limited budget. You can get this disc because any day in the recording studio is a good day when conductor, pianist and orchestra can galvanize one another’s best for Mozart, as these performers do. Can you ever have too many good Mozart recordings?

Not when the likes of this disc are waiting to be purchased at budget label prices.

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Review by audiophileCT April 1, 2006 (2 of 4 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:    
I recently phrchased several MEMBRAN SACDs including this one. However, I cannot find any
information regarding the formats of the original recordings, such as the bit depth and the
sampling rate. To my ears they sound like 16/44.1K, the same as RBCDs. The string section
sounds strident. Of course these have multi-channel capabilities but then I do not even
know whether the recordings are true multi-channel or are processed from two-channel ones.
Any comments?

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