There is something to be said for an established group - a Trio or Quartet, for example - playing as an experienced ensemble, presenting a unified vision to bring life and freshness to classic masterworks. As opposed to what we have here: 4 individuals thrust together for a recording session and hoping for the best. Predictably, each sounds determined to make their mark on what they play and stand out from the pack with their "uniqueness". In particular, this violinist and pianist seem to be trying to outdo one another with musical point-making - demonstrating who can be the boldest, the bravest, and the most daring to bedazzle us.
And Mozart gets lost in the free-for-all.
I try to be as favorable as I can in my reviews of new recordings. In the spirit of being supportive, I'll make an effort to temper my criticism of those I find fault with, honestly pointing out the deficiencies while countering with as many positives as are surely evident. But what I can’t do is be like Gramophone magazine (and others) and pretend everything is great. (I question whether they actually listen to some of the CDs they "review".) And on this latest Chandos Mozart release, there is no sugar-coating it.
The playing is so endlessly fussy I simply couldn’t tolerate it long enough to find many positives. Pianist Federico Colli is the worst offender by far, and starts in with it right from the opening measures of the G minor with idiosyncratic affectations. There are some awkward hesitations right from the get-go, and he goes even further by applying odd tenutos at the start of trills followed by ritardandos coming out of them. And these idiosyncrasies continue throughout, becoming downright pretentious in, for example, the opening of the Rondo. And he is very extravagant with frivolous embellishment and ornamentation as well.
The others follow suit in their own ways (most notably the violin) where hardly a phrase goes by without some obvious point-making - more tenutos, awkward hesitations, abrupt rubatos - masquerading as “expression”. And the endless ornamentation gets to be almost overwhelming after a while. (As a matter of fact, the violinist gets so caught up in it I noted a couple moments of insecurity in her playing, which surprised me.)
The Eb Major is marred further by overindulgent rubato in the piano. Tempos are barely established before Colli slams on the brakes at every opportunity - each time he plays alone or sees a dolce indication. Momentum is disrupted so frequently the opening movement hardly feels like an Allegro, while the final Allegretto is annoyingly twee.
Interestingly, I thought the viola and cello sounded rather more focused on Mozart and getting on with the matters at hand. And I couldn’t help but wonder if they found the experience frustrating trying to fit in with what this violinist and, especially this pianist, are doing.
As a group, there are positives for sure. Dynamics are good (although enhanced unnecessarily at times); tempos in the G minor are good (but never really settled in the Eb Major); and the playing is highly accomplished. These are hallmarks of what should make satisfactory readings. But there’s got to be more to it than that. How I wish these youngsters had just sat down and played Mozart rather than determinedly trying to do something to it. The genius of Mozart is the sheer perfection of his music, which doesn’t need all this “help”.
And Chandos doesn’t do them any favors. While the players are laid out in a realistic, relaxed perspective, with the piano expertly balanced, the strings sound thin (especially the violin) and a bit grainy. While this is a standard CD rather than the usual higher-quality SACD, there is no excuse for grainy string tone. And maybe Francesca Dego really does have a thin, wiry, slightly nasal tone (despite the booklet claiming she is "celebrated for her sonorous tone"). But I wonder if she actually likes how she sounds on this Mozart recording.
I know I’m being critical. But I was so annoyed with what they kept doing to Mozart, I couldn’t get past it. And unfortunately for all involved, it was just by chance I had just listened to the superb 2002 Hyperion recording of these masterpieces played by the wonderful Leopold String Trio and pianist Paul Lewis. And how glorious their playing is in every way – radiant, musical, effortlessly expressive and utterly natural. No fussiness; no musical point making; no “HEY LOOK AT WHAT I’M DOING!” going on from any of them. It’s just pure, unadulterated Mozart, played with consummate musicianship and life-affirming joy. And Paul Lewis’s pianism is truly a marvel. His leggiero in particular is a wonder to behold, along with exquisite delicacy, crisp articulation and natural, effortless musicality. He demonstrates with mastery exactly how to caress a phrase without slowing down the tempo or disrupting the spirit of an Allegro. And the trio of strings matches him, united in interpretation and inspiration. What a resplendent performance it is and beautifully recorded by the Hyperion team.
After a few days, I decided to give the Chandos another try. Listening to it again, I was still highly annoyed with their fussiness but was at least able to get all the way through it. However on a third day, I simply couldn’t tolerate it for more than a few minutes and turned it off. Consistent with all three encounters was the feeling this recording isn’t really about Mozart at all. It’s about these young, up-and-coming musicians - all Chandos regulars - making a show of it. And I’m usually all for it – within reason. But this isn’t the way to do it.
In closing, I don’t mean to diminish the achievement of these fine musicians. After all, they are recording with the premier Classical label and are well underway in establishing distinguished careers. However, I’m not sure they were quite ready to play chamber music together (especially Dego and Colli) without a little more experience playing as a team rather than individuals. I almost feel bad for Timothy Ridout and Laura van der Heijden getting strapped into this. And frankly, I’m disheartened that Chandos would produce it at this point.