The 50 greatest Mozart recordings - part 3

Gramophone Mon 16th May 2016

The finest recordings of Mozart's music, from the violin sonatas to the Mass in C minor...

Verdi's Macbeth

Violin Sonatas Nos 5, 9, 15, 18, 21, 27, 33

Alina Ibragimova vn Cédric Tiberghien pf

(Hyperion)  

Call me a killjoy, but my pulse rate rarely quickens at the prospect of Mozart’s pre-pubescent music. The three childhood works on these discs – essentially keyboard sonatas with discreet violin support – go through the rococo motions pleasantly enough. But amid the music’s chatter and trickle, only the doleful minore episode in the minuet finale of K30 and the carillon effects in the corresponding movement of K14 (enchantingly realised here) offer anything faintly individual. Still, it would be hard to imagine more persuasive performances than we have here from the ever-rewarding Tiberghien-Ibragimova duo: delicate without feyness, rhythmically buoyant (Tiberghien is careful not to let the ubiquitous Alberti figuration slip into auto-ripple) and never seeking to gild the lily with an alien sophistication.

The players likewise bring the crucial Mozartian gift of simplicity and lightness of touch (Ibragimova’s pure, sweet tone selectively warmed by vibrato) to the mature sonatas that frame each of the two discs. It was Mozart, with his genius for operatic-style dialogues, who first gave violin and keyboard equal billing in his accompanied sonatas; and as in their Beethoven sonata cycle (Wigmore Hall Live), Tiberghien and Ibragimova form a close, creative partnership, abetted by a perfect recorded balance (in most recordings I know the violin tends to dominate). ‘Every phrase tingles,’ I jotted down frivolously as I listened to the opening Allegro of the G major Sonata, K301, truly con spirito, as Mozart asks, and combining a subtle flexibility with an impish glee in the buffo repartee.

Tiberghien and Ibragimova take the opening Allegro of the E minor Sonata, K304, quite broadly, emphasising elegiac resignation over passionate agitation. But their concentrated intensity is compelling both here and in the withdrawn – yet never wilting – minuet. Especially memorable are Ibragimova’s chaste thread of tone in the dreamlike E major Trio, and Tiberghien’s questioning hesitancy when the plaintive Minuet theme returns, an octave lower, after the Trio.

In the G major Sonata, K379, rapidly composed for a Viennese concert mounted by Archbishop Colloredo just before Mozart jumped ship, Tiberghien and Ibragimova are aptly spacious in the rhapsodic introductory Adagio (how eloquently Tiberghien makes the keyboard sing here), and balance grace and fire in the tense G minor Allegro. In the variation finale their basic tempo sounds implausibly jaunty for Mozart’s prescribed Andantino cantabile, though objections fade with Tiberghien’s exquisite voicing of the contrapuntal strands in the first variation. I enjoyed the latest of the sonatas, K481, unreservedly, whether in the players’ exuberant give-and-take in the outer movements or their rapt, innig Adagio, where Ibragimova sustains and shades her dulcet lines like a thoroughbred lyric soprano. Having begun this review in grudging mode, I’ll end in the hope that these delightful, inventive performances presage a complete series of Mozart’s mature violin sonatas, with or without a smattering of childhood works. Richard Wigmore (May 2016)

 

Violin Sonatas Nos 27, 32 & 35

Christian Tetzlaff vn Lars Vogt pf

(Ondine)

This disc brings together two musicians absolutely at the top of their game and with long experience of working together, as the easy dialogue between them amply demonstrates. High points abound: the way Tetzlaff withdraws his sound to a whisper in the long, sinewy lines of the Andante of K454; the minor-key passage in the same movement, a tragedy no less profound for being fleeting. At the other end of the emotional spectrum is the scintillating interaction of the two in the Presto of K526. This sonata, one of Mozart’s remarkable A major creations, came in the wake of personal tragedy, following the death not only of his father but also his friend, the gamba player and composer Carl Friedrich Abel, to whose memory the work is dedicated. It’s a creature of great changeability, attaining an almost hymnic intensity in the slow movement. That is especially evident in the visionary playing of Mark Steinberg with Mitsuko Uchida (a recording that should be in every home, to my mind, disappointing only for the fact that there has been no follow-up), where every yearning key-change is luminously coloured. The tragedy is perhaps more restrained in the new version, Tetzlaff’s tone warmer a degree or two than Steinberg’s, though the way he uses vibrato for expressive effect is compelling.

The reading of the earlier K379 is just as thoughtful, the opening movement achieving a more ethereal quality than Podger and Cooper, Vogt arguably the more imaginative keyboard player. It’s the hyper-reactivity between the two players that is a constant delight, as witness their subtle way of varying repeats. And the variation-form finale on a simple rococo-ish theme is entrancing, each one piquantly characterised without exaggeration. A delight from beginning to end. Harriet Smith (February 2013) 

 

Piano Quartets

Paul Lewis pf Leopold String Trio

(Hyperion)

There have been several excellent recordings recently of these two works, mostly on period instruments. Here’s another, on modern instruments, and with performances quite out of the ordinary. These are unusually expansive works, their first movements each close on 15 minutes’ music, prolific in their thematic matter and richly developed. They demand playing that shows a grasp of their scale, playing that makes plain to the listener the shape, the functional character of the large spans of the music.

Paul Lewis and the Leopold String Trio excel in this, with their feeling for its structure and its tension: I am thinking primarily of the first movement of the G minor, and especially of its great climax at the end of the development section, which is delivered with a power and a sense of its logic that are compelling. It is in fact clear from the opening that this is a performance to reckon with, exemplified by its carefully measured tempo, its poise and its subtle handling of the balance between strings and piano. There is a great deal of variety from Lewis in matters of touch and articulation, and much refinement of detail: the shades of meaning in the shifts between major and minor, and in the often chromatic harmony, do not escape him and his colleagues. The Andante is unhurried, allowing plenty of time for expressive detail; and the darker colours within the finale, for all its G major good cheer, are there too.

The spacious and outgoing E flat work is no less sympathetically done, with plenty of feeling for its special kind of broad lyricism; I particularly relished the gently springy rhythms and the tenderness of the string phrasing in the first movement, and Lewis’s beautifully shaped phrasing in the Larghetto. A real winner, this disc: warmly recommended. Stanley Sadie (October 2003)

 

Sonata for Two Pianos, K448

Radu Lupu, Murray Perahia pfs 

(Sony)

How lucky we are that the two greatest pianists of their generation, Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu, are firm friends and that they have collaborated in recording two pieces that are arguably the most successful examples of their respective genres (the Schubert is for piano duet; the Mozart for two pianos). Whether it is in the perfectly crafted busy activity of the Allegro con spirito first movement of the Mozart or the introspective and soulful depth of the Schubert, the players find a unanimity of vision. One is not so much conscious of dialogue-like interplay, but more of them blending to play as one instrument.
The fine CBS recording has entirely captured the subtle inflections of detail, especially in the artists' irreproachable balance. Taken from a live performance at The Maltings, matters of ensemble, which usually defeat the Mozart Sonata, are judged to perfection. After the double bar of the slow movement Lupu and Perahia become lost in each other's thoughts and the effect is overwhelmingly beautiful. James Methuen-Campbell (March 1986)

 

Keyboard Music, Vol 7

Kristian Bezuidenhout fp

(Harmonia Mundi) 

Mozart’s solo keyboard music inhabits a somewhat isolated corner. Great Mozartians from Clifford Curzon to Alfred Brendel to Clara Haskil left surprisingly few recordings of the solo sonatas and variations, which is why Kristian Bezuidenhout’s mandate to record all of them on fortepiano for Harmonia Mundi catches the attention. Hearing the discs themselves, one can hardly take one’s ears off the performances because they go so far inside the music and reverse much of what you thought you knew.

Bezuidenhout seems to piggyback lesser works (variations) on to major ones (sonatas) by juxtaposing them together, paired according to similar chronology, revealing moments of synchronicity as well as dramatic leaps in Mozart’s evolution, such as on Vol 7 when the 1773 Six Variations on ‘Mio caro Adone’ in G major, K180, are followed, in 1774, by the gargantuan theme-and-variations final movement of the Piano Sonata in D major, K284, showing Mozart working with an invention and rigour that almost sound like another composer. Elsewhere, though, Mozart’s freewheeling variations, at least in these performances, are doorways into the composer’s psyche in ways that the more formal, polished sonatas are not. The variations were like Mozart’s secret garden, offering glimpses of his improvisatory spirit. Dare I say that Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations came to mind repeatedly in these three volumes?

‘When Mozart played a simple scale,’ wrote Wanda Landowska, quoting the composer’s contemporaries, ‘it became transformed into a cavatina.’ That sums up the Bezuidenhout difference. His typical Mozartian attributes include firm command of structure, great instincts for sympathetic tempi and a technique refined enough to get at the tiniest details – in contrast to Paul Badura-Skoda’s more forceful but generalised fortepiano sonorities (Gramola). More distinctively, Bezuidenhout’s elastic tempi give him room to probe for meaning but also allow panache that’s so much a part of Mozart’s buoyant temperament and prompts some delightfully elongated final cadences. Not only does one hear the notes with more transparency than on a modern instrument but one also gets a stronger sense of Mozart’s larger world. Bezuidenhout’s stealth weapon, though, may be the unequal temperament of his copy of an 1805 Anton Walter instrument. The popular notion that equal temperament reigned exclusively after JS Bach just isn’t true. Experiments with alternative tuning – I’m thinking of Peter Serkin playing late Beethoven – can be colouristic revelations, which is also true of Bezuidenhout. So if you can only afford one volume of this series, which would it be? I refuse to say. Hear them all. David Patrick-Stearns (February 2015)

 

Piano Sonatas Nos 7, 11, 15 & 18

Christian Blackshaw pf

(Wigmore Hall Live)

Hoist with my own petard, I think. Reviewing Igor Levit’s Bach/Beethoven/Rzewski Variations (11/15), I rashly concluded that I would be lucky to hear as fine a piano recording this year (meaning Gramophone Award year, rather than calendar year, incidentally). And, lo and behold, here is one.

Christian Blackshaw’s Mozart is a known quantity, of course, and I doubt whether any of the superlatives below hasn’t been applied to the previous three volumes in his Wigmore Hall Live series. But permit me to join the chorus of acclaim for his elegance of phrasing, limpid tone quality (captured in a demonstration-quality recording), tastefulness of nuance and ornamentation, and imaginative response to harmony and character. Every tiniest detail here is thought through, and only the most painstaking forensics would find the slightest fault in the fingerwork (a very few bass notes don’t quite speak, and even more rarely an ornament is less than silky smooth, if you want to know). Yet nothing is fetishised. Perfection – or something very close to it – is in the service of freedom.

As Blackshaw himself notes, ‘the sonatas resemble mini-operas’. But how to apply that insight with discretion and variety, with humanity but without histrionics, is a rare gift. Blackshaw is one of the few who know how to make the music sing and dance without making a song and dance of it. And alongside operatic eloquence, his treatment of the surrounding texture suggests the civilised conversation and wit of Mozart’s wind serenades.

Never have the 16 minutes of the first movement of the A major Sonata (K331) passed more graciously, for me at least, and the acknowledgement of the Adagio marking for the fifth variation is exquisitely tasteful. At the end of the C major Sonata (K309), how delectable is the tiny relaxation of pulse to allow the lowest register to speak. How subtly weighted are the fp accents in the slow movement of the F major, and how perfectly adapted to their harmonic environment. Even the wonderful Uchida sounds occasionally a fraction effortful by comparison.

Regretfully, I have to note that this volume completes Blackshaw’s survey of the sonatas. I can only hope for a set of the fantasies, rondos and miscellanea so that I can continue this paean. David Fanning (January 2016)

 

Piano Sonatas Nos 1–18

Mitsuko Uchida pf

(Philips)

By common consent, Mitsuko Uchida is among the leading Mozart pianists of today, and her recorded series of the piano sonatas won critical acclaim as it appeared and finally Gramophone Awards in 1989 and 1991. Here are all the sonatas, plus the Fantasia in C minor, K475, which is in some ways a companion piece to the sonata in the same key, K457. This is unfailingly clean, crisp and elegant playing, that avoids anything like a romanticised view of the early sonatas such as the delightfully fresh G major, K283. On the other hand, Uchida responds with the necessary passion to the forceful, not to say angst-ridden, A minor Sonata, K310. Indeed, her complete series is a remarkably fine achievement, comparable with her account of the piano concertos. The recordings were produced in the Henry Wood Hall in London and offer excellent piano sound; thus an unqualified recommendation is in order for one of the most valuable volumes in Philips's Complete Mozart Edition. Don't be put off by critics who suggest that these sonatas are less interesting than some other Mozart compositions, for they're fine pieces written for an instrument that he himself played and loved.

 

Complete Piano Sonatas 

Daniel-Ben Pienaar

(Avie)

Daniel-Ben Pienaar couldn’t have begun better, not by playing but by saying, “It is inescapable that a performance practice for these works that engages the instrument’s full expressive potential needs to look beyond easy categories of ‘authentic’, or ‘modern’ or ‘historically informed’”. Quite – but that’s not all, so do read his booklet-note first. One factor strikes immediately: there is not a whiff of bygone reverential, even obsequious attitudes to Mozart that still cast faint shadows among some pianists. Pienaar is therefore “modern” in his discernment of the music. But – how about this for a 19th-century throwback? – Pienaar de-synchronises his hands, though selectively so. Effects are clear in, for example, the Fantasia, K475. The fractional hiatus between left and right underpins the harmony in the first and third bars; and a similar hiatus in the D major section (2'25") lends added expression to its contrasting calmness. The staggered articulation is no mere anachronism. It becomes a subtle aspect of a range of expression Pienaar uses to penetrate music “very rich in activity, rich in personality and topoi”. Point and purpose explained. And totally disdained is “the facile stereotype of Mozart as the epitome of elegance”. Of the utmost importance in conveying convictions is Pienaar’s strong, independent left hand. It tightens harmonic tension and supports rather than accompanies treble lines. Be it high drama or lyrical contemplation, Pienaar scans phrases with a fluidity that releases the music from rhythmic inertia. Ignore the odd insignificant pianistic smudge, because keyboard prowess is formidable. But as his performance of the Alla turca Sonata, K331, shows, technique isn’t allowed to edge ahead of emotional and intellectual depth. A much-mistreated piece emerges in a different light. Pienaar pays attention to the oft-forgotten grazioso element in the first movement, eschews metrical stiffness in the Minuet, yields to the Trio’s distinctive flow and refuses to turn the March into a janissary bash. Extend such thoughtful, profound probity to the whole set and you have interpretations where within the letter critically observed, a numinous potency breaks free. Momentous Mozart.

 

Piano Sonatas Nos 8 & 15

Richard Goode pf

(Nonesuch)

There’s nothing more demanding of mind and finger, heart and hand, than a Mozart programme such as this, which includes two of the greatest sonatas and the A minor Rondo. Absolutely no margin for error or insufficiency, nor indeed for anything at all approximate or generalised. It’s given to very few to play Mozart as well as Richard Goode, who seems to me to pitch the rhetoric just right and sustain an ideal balance of strength and refinement. Pitching rhetoric so that one is constantly persuaded isn’t a question of getting it in the right ball-park but of defining character with absolute precision and making eloquence speak as well as sing. With Goode, the music couldn’t be any other way, not at this moment. The smallest units have been thought about, judged in relation to before-and-after and the long term, and then released into the air, beyond the confines of the instrument.

It’s quite big playing and I like that, too, the range of sonority appropriate to the A minor Sonata, K310, in particular; and I can’t recall a recent recording of it which realises so well the sharp contrasts, the cross-cut abutments of dynamics, which are such a striking feature in all three movements. One of Goode’s characteristics is a touch of urgency that has nothing to do with impetuosity or agitation of the surface but rather with a projection of the discourse in the sense of carrying it forward and making us curious about what will happen next. And in the presto finale, where Brendel is choppy and rather slow, Goode is exciting as well as articulate and wonderfully adept at getting from one thing to another.

There’s little to choose between these players in the composite F major Sonata, K533/494. Brendel is at his finest in the dark, far-reaching middle movement; both of them relish the challenge of characterising the multifariousness of the first, with Brendel’s pianism at the service of the drama but perhaps the plainer of the two in dealing with the intricacies of the counterpoint. Goode is especially convincing in the last movement, Mozart’s revision of an earlier piece sometimes considered too lightweight to function as a finale; I don’t think you would have a doubt about it here.

He gives you the overview, too, often powerfully. While admiring the flux of intensities, dynamics, shapes and colours he sets before you in the Rondo, I wondered three-quarters of the way through whether the totality was going to achieve enough weight. But the coda is to come – passionate and desolate, a close without parallel in Mozart’s instrumental music – and at moments such as this you can be assured that Goode will surprise and certainly not disappoint. The shorter pieces, enterprisingly chosen, set off the great works admirably. Exceptional sound throughout – like the playing, quite out of the ordinary run. Stephen Plaistow (June 2005)

 

Mass in C minor

Sols; Handel and Haydn Society / Harry Christophers

(Coro)

Mozart was alone among his contemporaries in his ability to grasp the lessons of Handel and Bach: even Haydn’s encounter with the Handelian oratorio in London a decade later would provoke a dramatically different response. Mozart became entranced by their music shortly after his move to Vienna at “academies” held at the residence of the imperial librarian, Gottfried van Swieten, and began to absorb Baroque textures and techniques into the most up-to-date Classical forms of which he was master. The C minor Mass is by some distance his contrapuntal masterpiece and, had he finished it, would have been his first public demonstration of this rapprochement between styles. It pulls together the Bachian fugue of the “Cum Sancto Spiritu”, the Handelian “scourging” chorus of the “Qui tollis”, the galant concerto style of the “Laudamus te” and the purely operatic – the “Christe eleison”, based on a solfeggio composed for Constanze, and the “Et incarnatus est”, the prototype for Susanna’s Garden aria in Figaro’s last act.

This mixture of styles made the C minor Mass an ideal work during the digital boom-time of the 1980s for period-instrument ensembles, well-versed in the Baroque, to make an early foray into the music of the later 18th century. The reference versions by Gardiner (1986) and Hogwood (1988) listed above find contrasting ways to complete the half-finished sections of the work; Christophers opts for the completion by Helmut Eder also adopted (with some caveats) by Emmanuel Krivine. The Kyrie and Gloria are complete in Mozart’s hand (and indeed were co-opted by him for use in the oratorio Davide penitente, for which words were contrived, possibly by Lorenzo da Ponte, and shoehorned into the music of the Mass). Problems arise in the Credo, only two movements of which exist. Eder’s string parts for the “Incarnatus” over-egg this divine pudding while his decision not to add trumpets to the C major “Credo in unum Deum” robs the movement of the grandeur it surely deserves but also fails to make explicit its similarity to the opening of Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum.

The mixed voices of Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society are fully equal to Mozart’s florid choral writing if not quite matching the Monteverdi Choir for rhythmic incisiveness and tonal heft. As regards the soloists, the onus falls mostly on the two women, well matched in the “Domine Deus” and “Quoniam”; Gillian Keith is touching in the “Christe” if a little harried in the “Incarnatus”, while Tove Dahlberg admits only the slightest scoop in the wide leaps of the “Laudamus”. The two men wait patiently before combining effectively with the women in the “Quoniam” (tenor) and “Benedictus” (tenor and bass). This disc is more than simply a souvenir of an occasion audibly enjoyed by the good burghers of Boston. It offers a snapshot of America’s oldest concert-giving ensemble – still in rude health at the age of 195 – but also presents a commanding and compelling reading of an important if often overlooked monument in Mozart’s musical development. David Threasher (Awards issue 2010)

 

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