What strange vocal noises the distinguished French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard makes when he conducts an orchestra: hummings, huffings and a kind of motorbike revving-up growl for emphases. Fortunately, it would take more than this to discommode so consummate an ensemble as the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. One suspected they could give as polished and vivacious an account of Mozart's earliest fully characteristic symphony, No 29 in A major, without anyone to conduct them at all.
As the opener, this reading reaffirmed the vibrant quality of their string section; not only immaculate in ensemble, but wonderfully responsive to the expressive nuances of Mozart's inner parts. And once at the keyboard to direct and play a couple of Mozart piano concertos, Aimard seemed happy to convey expressive noises entirely though the intricate dance of his fingertips.
But here, a complication arose. In order for a pianist conducting from the keyboard to be seen by all the players, the piano lid is usually removed. But this tends to diffuse the tone of the piano. Now, Steinway has pioneered a set of low, transparent baffles to sit on the piano. They certainly refocus the sound, but they seem inordinately to boost its volume. Rather than an intimate interplay of piano and orchestra, what we heard resembled more one of those recordings in which the soloist sounds artificially spotlit by the microphone.
The Piano Concerto No 19 in F is, in any case, a curiously disparate piece: light and entertaining in the first two movements, then energetically contrapuntal in its finale. By contrast, the Piano Concerto No 9 in E flat is, by general agreement, Mozart's earliest score of true genius. Aimard resisted the temptation to deliver its opening with mere youthful pertness; taking an ample view of the first movement, digging deep into the melancholic minor mode of the Andantino and setting a perfect tempo of swinging elegance for the minuet episode of the finale, in which Mozart's elaborate division of bowed and pizzicato strings can rarely have sounded more magical than as delivered here by the peerless COE.