Chamber music has always formed the heart of Maria João Pires’s musicianship. Indeed, she has often commented that she is happier working with others than performing on her own. “Not sharing a stage is very difficult for me,” she once remarked (in an interview for ArtsJournal in 2012) “You are apart from the group, apart from community, apart from everything. You become different and special. And, if you become different and special, you’re alone.”
Maria João Pires “shapes and colours every phrase, and with immaculate taste, and she makes sure the phrases end as eloquently as they begin,” wrote Gramophone in 1974. “She conveys not just the details but the relevance of every note to the whole … Best of all, she communicates everything she has discovered about the music, and it is worth having.” This Portuguese pupil of Wilhelm Kempff, Pires was one of the artists who defined the Erato label in the 1970s and 1980s. This 5-CD box gathers together the recordings she made over the period from 1976 to 1985 and it reflects the consistent focus of her repertoire, with its special emphasis on Austro-German composers of the Classical and early-Romantic periods. Embracing solo works, piano duets and concertos, it contains works by Mozart, Schumann, Beethoven, but also by Bach and Chopin.
It was an eminently sensible decision to couple Zimerman's previously separate Chopin concertos on a single CD. The Ax/Ormandy/RCA disc is the only rival as a coupling, so let me say at once that in different moods I would be equally happy with either. The main difference, I think, is the actual sound. From DG we get a closer, riper sonority, with Zimerman's piano much more forwardly placed. Both orchestra and piano are more distanced on the RCA recording, especially Ax's piano. This, together with Ax's lighter, more translucent semiquaver figuration (and sometimes his greater willingness to stand back and merely accompany—as in certain episodes in the F minor Concerto's finale) often conjures up visions of Chopin himself at the keyboard, and we know he was often criticized for insufficiently strong projection.
A new recording of Weber's piano concertos was obviously long overdue, and this one fits the bill more than adequately, coming as it does generously coupled with the much better known Konzertstück and in first-rate sound quality from HMV. Not the least of its virtues is the light it casts on the origins of the piano idiom of Chopin and Liszt and, in the case of the Konzertstück, on the very foundations of the romantic concerto. I wouldn't envy any historian out to determine who was responsible for which innovation in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, but certainly to hear so many fully-formed romantic textures in music dating from 1810-21 is an instructive, not to say startling, experience.
Joao Maria Pires is nowadays, the supreme female pianist in the sublime art of playing Mozart. Because although she is far from the superior vision of Clara Haskil, for instance, she plays with an artistic conviction that may be noticed from the first bar, her spiritual affinity has joined with an overriding goal to capture with mind and heart the essential nuances of the beloved Salzburg's son. It's not an easy fact she has achieved this envied place. There are superb and majuscule pianist all over the world, but the difference that makes the difference is the quality of sound, between incorporeal and evanescent that remarks the sumptuous lyricism we always find in Mozart.
This work is very hard to characterize emotionally, but it sighs and it sings enigmatically. Surprisingly, so many performances are very straightforward, never capturing these soulful, longing qualities that almost approach reverie at times. Not so this time. The interplay here is amazing, Pires' delicate approach is ideal for this music, and the conducting is elastic in that "Furtwanglerian" way. But don't get the impression this is bloated, Romantic Mozart…it's not. (Maybe Furtwangler wasn't the right name to evoke after all.
Maria-Joào Pires has recorded these concertos before, for Erato, and this experience shows in assured playing. In K449 I find the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic, recorded in Vienna's Musikverein, too big: the string section seems large and the hall over-reverberant. Furthermore, the piano sounds plummy, and even those who dislike the fortepiano may question its suitability. With these reservations, one can enjoy Pires's deft and sensitive performance, without strong individuality but offering consistent intelligence, and the brisk finale shows her and Abbado at their best. Even so, this is a romanticized slow movement; the gooey orchestral sound does not help, but the pianist is also partly responsible in a way that I have sometimes noted in her performances of Mozart's sonatas.
Deutsche Grammophon has another excellent Schumann Concerto in its catalog, the Pollini/Abbado, with the Berlin Philharmonic, coupled with a good but not great Schoenberg Piano Concerto. Not surprisingly, Pollini is more muscular and evenly balanced in the Schumann, even if he is, as usual, a bit straitlaced. Pires is always the sensitive and probing artist, or so it seems. Here, she is alert from the opening descending chords to the expressive potential in every bar. She puts much more thinking and feeling in her interpretation than Pollini and most others I've heard.