MOZART Piano Sonatas (Marc-André Hamelin)
Mozart’s piano sonatas are still underrated, I dare say, apart from a handful. There are eight of them here, on two discs, in an order which appears to be random; perhaps that doesn’t matter. Each disc closes with a couple of pieces that used to appear in editions as ‘miscellaneous’ and be considered as miniatures, even the A minor Rondo, K511, which is a soliloquy of the most personal kind and lasts more than 11 minutes. Hamelin’s cultivated performance shows clearly that he loves it. The incomplete D minor Fantasia, K397, is also here, a document on a broad scale of Mozart’s powers as an improviser; a thousand pities it breaks off soon after turning to D major, near the end. The publisher Breitkopf provided 10 bars to make a perfunctory conclusion which Hamelin rejects in favour of an ending of his own. He doesn’t sound too sure of himself in this (who would?) but I wish he had gone on a bit.
I mention two tracks I enjoyed especially and where I think Hamelin has a lot to offer. The G major Gigue, K574, is also dispatched as few could, breathtakingly, though it’s kicked downstairs rather brashly at the end. Hamelin’s accents tend to be whipcracks rather than pressure points, and he gives the little B flat major Sonata, K570, a fearful cuff round the chops and sending-off in its final chords. His mechanism is second to none and rightly celebrated, but in the sonatas it sometimes obtrudes as if he wasn’t sure what to do with it. His fingers say too little. He chatters and agitates the surface of any movement that is lively. Like many virtuosos of superabundant gifts he shows a tendency to speed up when a brilliant passage is within reach and to play ever faster, as if he couldn’t help it. There may be ropes of pearls on offer to some people but his scales, to me, are the length of a piece of string. The notion that vocal music should always be a model for the instrumentalist – Mozart’s father was insistent on this point – gets short shrift. I miss cantabile, a singing style of playing, now nearly obsolete, which calls for an intense connection of the notes through the fingertips.
But Hamelin is never dull. He may not touch the heart through a perfect blend of control and insight, of pulse and flexibility, but his capacity for brilliance, for beauty of sound, and his flawless technical address can amount to pleasures in themselves. And there is always a response to the music – no dead wood. Some of the most sustained good listening occurred, for me, rather surprisingly in the E flat major Sonata, K282, the most Haydnesque and unconventional of the early ones, and in the so-called ‘easy’ Sonata in C major, K545, ‘for beginners’. Elsewhere Schnabel’s observation that the Mozart sonatas are too easy for children and too difficult for grown-ups came to mind, as did Alfred Brendel’s warning that piano-playing in Mozart, be it ever so perfect, is never enough.