"We felt as if we were rediscovering the world," Nikolaus Harnoncourt said, as he was rehearsing for this recording with Concentus Musica Vienna, the ensemble he founded in 1953. "We had to learn how to listen," he concluded, because they were exploring a whole new world of sound. For 60 years this period-instrument ensemble has been at the forefront of historical performing practice, yet they had never recorded any of Mozart's keyboard concertos, until now. They finally found the right instrument, and the perfect performer, Viennese pianist Rudolf Buchbinder.
"I'm very grateful that I was able to grow up in Vienna," says Buchbinder, "because when you look back, why Johannes Brahms, Ludwig van Beethoven, also Mozart—why did they move to Vienna? I think this was the multi-cultural place where the influence from outside was very important, from Gypsy music, from Bohemian folklore and so on. The biggest power of Vienna was the multi-cultural atmosphere in this place. And today, still, I think when you breathe the air in Vienna, you breathe the music with the air."
Rudolf Buchbinder had been experimenting on his own collection of early keyboards, for years, but never in front of an audience, "I had a really big selection of historic pianos," he recalls. "I had one original Andreas Stein from 1796 which was also a Mozart piano, but I used it only for my private purpose because I just wanted to find out how it could sound in those days: articulation, dynamics and mechanics. But only for my privacy and never was I thinking to go on stage to play an old piano. But then Nikolaus, asked me, 'Rudy, you know, I'm very surprised that I never did the Mozart Piano Concertos with my Concentus Musicus and you are the only one, you have to do it with me.' So I did it."
For his first public performance on a period instrument Buchbinder plays a fortepiano that's a reproduction of a 1792 Anton Walter instrument created by fortepiano maker Paul McNulty. Buchbinder says the next challenge was selecting which of Mozart's 27 keyboard concertos to record on this period instrument. They finally decided on the Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, and the Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major. "It was a very difficult decision about what kind of piano concerto I should choose to play on an historic instrument because you are not able to compete with a new piano," Buchbinder explains. "Like in the 'Elvira Madigan' Concerto, second movement, you cannot play this on an old piano. It doesn't sound as well as when you play it on a modern piano. So I was choosing one of the most dramatic concerti, which is K. 503, and then Harnoncourt's wife asked me to play the second piano concerto because only once can I make a live recording. I chose the A major, K. 488, which has a most beautiful part which never appears in the piano, only in the orchestra. It's the second theme in the slow movement. I'm very upset about that, that I'm not able to play this, you know, that the orchestra plays this."
"The biggest challenge is that we've lost, in our time, the freedom of improvisation," Buchbinder adds. "You know, Mozart was a genius. When he played a piece, it was never the same, the second time. It was always different. When there was a fermata, when there was a little cadenza, whatever. He was always improvising on stage in his own works. And I think this is one of the biggest challenges that we have to learn. You know, we played these concerti twice, there were two concerts and different cadenzas and different improvisations on each fermata - it should never be the same."
This new release, which puts Mozart's piano concertos No. 23 and 25 in a new light on period instruments, was recorded live last summer at the Vienna Musikverein. So is Rudolf Buchbinder happy with the end result? "You know, I never listen to my own recordings," Buchbinder admits. "My wife, when she drives along in her car, she can listen to my records but not when I'm there. When you come to my house there are all these recordings, records, CDs, they are in the original package of the cellophane, it's never opened."