Faced with the seemingly simple task of purchasing a Mozart recording, an interested buyer can reasonably ask, "What's the difference between all these musicians?" After all, Mozart can be pretty straightforward: His tempos don't leave a great deal of room for interpretation (quick is quick), the phrases are clearly marked, and it's easy to tell the melody from the accompaniment. The listener may assume that all those pianists sound alike when playing Mozart's piano sonatas.
Of course this isn't true, though. All those Mozart recordings exist because Mozart has won a place in the Classical Music Hall of Fame (also known as "the canon") and because pianists have found methods of playing his music in their own ways. Pianist A might speed up where Pianist B slows down; Pianist C might clip a note that Pianist D thinks ought to ring out into the hall (or into a recording-studio microphone). Another perk of landing in that pantheon is that a record label will occasionally issue many recordings of your work at about the same time. The esteemed label Deutsche Grammophon, home to Herbert von Karajan and his recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein's final albums, recently did just that. It put out three recordings of Mozart's Piano Sonata in C major, K. 330, in close succession.
Lang Lang, the 23-year-old sensation, released the sonata on his Memory disc, a release that ostensibly highlighted the way he's rethought these works. The fact that he's 23 and barely had time to develop a mature interpretation isn't really the point; instead, he's aiming to prove that he's not just a flash-in-the-pan prodigy who bangs out Rachmaninoff, but one who can play that serious music, too. Mikhail Pletnev and Yundi Li followed soon after. The impetuous Russian Pletnev included the sonata in his collection of his "favorite" Mozart sonatas, while Li, like Lang Lang, a young Chinese signee to DG, included the sonata on his recital disc recorded in Vienna's famed Musikverein, home to the Vienna Philharmonic.
So, what do they do differently? Lang Lang largely takes a more spacious view of the sonata and plays with slower tempos than Pletnev and Li in each of the three movements. Pletnev lets his fancy dictate his phrasing and largely avoids playing in a fixed tempo for any stretch of time. Li is the speed-demon and clicks through the sonata's faster movements as if he's spinning the tracking wheel on his BlackBerry.
Take the way they each begin the piece, for starters. Lang Lang plays this sprightly music innocuously and sounds like he doesn't want to offend. The scales and arpeggios are proper and polite. Pletnev's much more strident, and puts small accents on almost every beat. Li is off to the races. He's got the technique to play it that fast, so that's what he does. Compared to Lang Lang's Apollonian detachment, Li is playing the smarty-pants.
The mostly sunny sonata turns bleaker in the middle of the second movement. Mozart heads into dark F minor territory, anchoring the moment with insistently repeated F's in the left hand that ring out like the low tolling of a bell. Pletnev uses those notes to push the music forward. But the notes are almost inaudible on Li's recording and Lang connects them to each other to create an almost noirish atmosphere.
The final movement, a happy, major-key allegretto, ends with a little joke. Mozart gives a bit of a tease near the end, as if he'll repeat some earlier material, but instead signs off with three sharp chords. Who has a sense of humor with this? Lang Lang doesn't; Li and Pletnev pull out a little bit of firepower, though, particularly Pletnev. Li lets that enigmatic chord dissolve before pulling a surprise punch with those three final chords.
This little parlor game of comparing recordings is a bit of fun among classical-music aficionados who will argue the merits of Alfred Brendel's Beethoven versus Richard Goode's for hours. But finding out how to notice what's different and how to say so is much more pleasurable, ultimately, than punching someone out in the name of Bach. Which recording of the three mentioned above is the best? Which one did you prefer? That's the one.