MOZART Piano Sonatas Nos 7, 11, 15 & 18
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.