mozart piano concertos challenge kim

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 24
Piano Concerto No. 25
Ben Kim (piano)
Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra
rec. 2022, MCO Studio 1, Hilversum, Netherlands
Challenge Classics CC72935 [65]

American pianist Ben Kim was born in Portland and is now resident in Berlin. He has just turned forty and this is his second recording of two Mozart concertos for Challenge Classics; in the first, he declared his interest in “using the modern piano to mimic the unique temperament of the fortepiano, to make the notes not only sing but speak like a human voice, accentuating not only the luxuriant vowel sounds of the modern piano but also the short, staccato consonants created by the fortepiano.” In the same spirit, he is accompanied by a chamber orchestra of about half the size of a modern orchestra, made up of 35 members of the Royal Concertgebouw – so in essence, this is a kind of “hybrid period” performance.

That first recording was accorded a generally very favourable critical reception but there was a touch of “damning with faint praise” about the Gramophone’s judgement that “[o]n their own terms, these performances give pleasure.” There is no lack of weight, however, in the long, dark orchestral introduction, nor in Kim’s exposition, and the balance between the piano and orchestra is ideal. His deliberately percussive manner is not out of place in such florid music with its constant runs and trills which need sharp articulation. The “Commendatore” moments from 7:40 onwards have impressive an massiveness about them, then Kim plays his own, highly entertaining and inventive two-minute-long cadenza before the brief but louring coda.

The oddly naïve opening of Larghetto is played with disarming simplicity, almost ironically “plonking it out” before moving seamlessly into the more ornamented and delicate section. I think he gets the mood of child-like innocence right and that affect is ably supported by the accompaniment. That severe articulation continues in the finale variations and there is a faintly sinister atmosphere about the wooden-legged dance theme counterpointed by the piano’s roulades, seamlessly executed by Kim.

Just as No. 24 has sufficient gravitas, K.503 is first grand and stately and Kim adopts a more “singing” manner in his tone and phrasing, such that while the symphonic stature of the concerto is in no sense underplayed, the piano also seems to take on the role of a grand operatic heroine despatching fioriture and long, coloratura phrases. Once again, the balance between the solo instrument and the accompaniment is perfectly judged, so individual instruments like the woodwind in the serenade-like Andante are nicely highlighted. It is very evident that this is a work written in the same year as Le nozze di Figaro at the start of the final sequence of great stage works terminating in Die Zauberflöte and La clemenza di Tito. Kim steers a fine line between sobriety and high spirits in the finale, whose ambivalence is put to rest by an irrepressibly exuberant conclusion, elegantly yet energetically played here.

I cannot say I am much enthused by the rather self-regarding, confessional note in the booklet written by Kim himself; I cannot imagine the great pianists who taught him indulging in such a thing and I don’t think it adds much to the listener’s appreciation of his playing. (I would also prefer it to be grammatical, as Kim explains that “playing Mozart still makes [him] feel more free [sic] than playing any other composer.”) And whether you agree that the interaction between the piano and the orchestra is similar to “the chatter on social media”, I could not say, but as he goes on to say that “one need not know a single thing about Mozart’s Piano Concertos 24 and 25 to appreciate their beauty”, such striving for cosy relevance strikes me as redundant – but maybe that’s just me being a crusty old Brit who resists the modern trend for personalisation at every turn. In any case, the second half of the note provides context of a much more helpful kind and my reservations are as nothing compared with my admiration for the performances.

(I keep wondering why recording labels as per here are issuing CDs in plastic case with a redundant cardboard slipcase, which I recycle – unless it provides extra protection during transit in the mail? In which case a cardboard digipack would be greener and more efficacious for that purpose.)

Ralph Moore

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