MOZART: Piano Concertos 21 and 22 – Jonathan Biss, piano /Orpheus Chamber Orchestra – EMI Classics 50999 2 17270 2 3 – CD, 61 min. ***1/2:
Jonathan Biss is a talented young pianist who’s gotten a remarkable amount of ink in recent years; his mastery of a variety of repertories, from concerto to chamber works is astonishing, and he’s constantly in demand for concert programs throughout the world. His impressive studies were at Indiana University and The Curtis Institute with Leon Fleischer, and he’s a third generation classical musician. His grandmother was the cellist Raya Garbousova; she was the musician Samuel Barber had in mind when he wrote his renowned Cello Concerto. In 2006 Biss signed an exclusive contract with EMI, and this new disc pairs him with the conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in two of Mozart’s most admired works, the Piano Concertos Nos. 21 and 22. This disc is also part of EMI’s OpenDisc series; as a bonus feature, it links to EMI’s OpenDisc website and offers the listener a download of Mozart’s Rondo in A minor. It’s good to see that EMI is using the OpenDisc feature with something of real value in the way of downloads now, rather than just offering access to “exclusive” content and streaming videos.
The competition in this often-played repertory is stiff, and honestly, I don’t see this recording knocking anyone from their perch in the pecking order. Jonathan Biss is a superb musician, and his talents are omnipresent throughout this disc, but my main problem comes from the leaderless Orpheus ensemble. Especially in concerto repertory, I personally feel that some direction is necessary – even if it comes from the keyboard – and the orchestral playing here just seemed to me a bit generic and uninspired. A conductor would probably have helped this mishmash achieve a more discernable level of collaboration between the players. One of my favorite recordings of these concertos is on the Philips label with Alfred Brendel and Sir Charles Mackerras conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and some quick A-B-ing between the two confirmed my suspicions. Not only did I ultimately prefer the immaculate phrasing of Alfred Brendel, but the comparison also brought the lack of cohesion between the orchestra players and soloist on this otherwise good disc into absolute clarity.
Jonathan Biss is a remarkable young talent who will only brighten the world of classical music with his presence in years to come. This disc will make an interesting companion to more classic offerings of these seminal works, if for no other reason than to simply witness the brilliance of Jonathan Biss’ playing. Recommended.
— Tom Gibbs