Brian Chapman

Academic Contractor and Pianist


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WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756—1791)

Sonatas for Piano K.330, K.283, K.545, K.331

“When I was just a child — perhaps my most important approach of all to music — I had the very strong feeling that even a violin sonata by Mozart is a kind of opera. And today I am certain that this feeling was right.” Nikolaus Harnoncourt (quoted in conversation with Hartmut Krones published in annotations to the complete recording of Beethoven’s 9 Symphonies by Teldec Classics International GMBH, 1991).

It is often claimed that Mozart’s greatest works are to be found among his operas, while the varied greatness of his other works is sometimes correlated with the extent to which they are operatic in character.

Although operatic character per se cannot be accepted as an indicator of musical greatness, the special place of opera in Mozart’s output does raise issues for the interpreter of his works.

In accepting Harnoncourt’s perspective to include Mozart’s piano sonatas I have looked, where appropriate, to the dramatic stage rather than to the perfumed salon for the focus of my interpretation and execution.

Consistent with this focus, I have deliberately eschewed the modish tendency to exaggerated rubato (i.e., fluctuation in tempo) that one finds in some contemporary recordings.

I consider rubato to be secondary means of animating the score. Its use should be restricted to a supportive role in the context of a maximally expressive dynamic range of tone production and phrasing. Whenever rubato is used as the primary means of expression, it becomes an extremely counterproductive agent, murderous to melody and rhythm alike, crippling the artistic flight of a work, and sometimes defacing it almost beyond recognition.

Sonata in C major, K.330

Allegro moderato
Andante cantabile
Allegretto

This sonata is among the most explicitly operatic of all Mozart’s instrumental works and seems to spring directly from the score of The Marriage of Figaro. The pompous gestures, the mischievous pranks, the ever-shifting sense of action — all are there in abundance in the two outer movements, while the expressive beauty of the Andante seems to convey in the simplest terms all the elegance, beauty, dignity, loneliness, and betrayed love of the young Countess Almaviva. Although written almost a decade earlier than Figaro, this sonata's anticipatory likeness of spirit is unmistakable.

A certain self-important exuberance seems to flood the first movement. The opening phrase, immediately repeated more stridently, appears to be saying, “Look at me! See what I can do!” and, indeed, Mozart then brings forth a wealth of ideas in rapid succession, all conveying a sense of drama that we instinctively recognise as operatic.

In striving to heighten this dramatic effect, I have disregarded the legato phrasing of the left hand found in some editions of this work and have chosen, instead, to render most of these left hand passages in a crisp staccato with a minimum of pedal. For the same reason, I have also shortened the trill in the opening statement so that it is rhythmically separated from its resolution, thereby avoiding a certain blandness associated with playing the trill out fully to the next beat.

The development section commences with new material that has no relation to the rest of the work except to reappear as a kind of echo in the brief coda that closes the movement. The rest of the development takes its cue from some softened, fragmentary references to the opening declamatory theme.

As published, the music calls for the entire development and recapitulation, including the coda, to be repeated. To me, this seems to undermine both the purpose and effect of the beautifully understated coda. While this problem could be avoided by not observing the repeat, it would seem a pity to forgo the opportunity to enjoy again a section which, because of its wealth and variety, easily bears repetition. My solution is to alter the end of the recapitulation the first time round so that it ends exactly as Mozart ended the exposition, thereby omitting the coda until the second time.

The Andante is a piece of profound and tender beauty that certainly calls for some naturally flowing relaxations and variations in tempo to make its proper effect. However, the required rubato should neither impede the Andante’s forward motion nor divide the crotchet beats into ponderous quavers. One aspect of the miraculous quality of this music is the emotional complexity that Mozart achieves with resources of such essential simplicity. This simplicity will not survive if the tempo becomes complicated and unpredictable and, without that simplicity, the exquisite one-line coda to this movement will be robbed of its heart-rending pathos.

The Allegretto provides an ebullient conclusion with plenty of mischief in the presentation of the opening theme first in a delicate piano and then in a heavy forte. As in the case of the Allegro, this movement also poses a repeated coda problem that I have avoided this time by omitting the repeat.

Sonata in G major, K.283

Allegro
Andante
Presto

While this sonata is a model of classic, formal beauty, it is invested with some highly imaginative episodes that raise the artistic interest above the merely conventional. Included among these are the modulatory treatment of the main opening theme when it returns at the recapitulation of the Allegro, the impassioned, discordant central episode that disturbs the otherwise serene tranquillity of the Andante, and the syncopation and orchestral tremolo effects used in the rollicking Presto.

Sonata in C major, K.545

Allegro
Andante
Allegretto grazioso

The charming simplicity of the first movement’s opening theme has made it a household tune the world over. Indeed, the qualities of simplicity and charm characterise the whole sonata, despite the stormy combative episode that dominates the Allegro’s development section.

The simple song of the Andante achieves a finely wrought beauty that is all the more remarkable because the right hand melody is accompanied throughout with an almost unrelenting ‘Alberti’ bass, illustrating how a commonplace musical device that might serve as a sheet anchor to lesser talents can be used to such effect by a composer of Mozart’s genius.

The work concludes with a brief Rondo that, in the space of one and a half minutes, presents features that adorn its simple content with much rhythmic vitality and not a little humour.

Sonata in A major, K.331

Andante grazioso — Adagio — Allegro
Menuetto
Rondo alla Turca (Allegretto)

Of the four sonatas contained in this recording, the Sonata K.331 poses the greatest artistic challenges, particularly in the first two movements.

The opening movement is a set of variations on an original theme that captures the quintessence of Mozartean grace and beauty in a gently lilting 6/8 metre. The artistic difficulty arises from the fact that all the variations except one are in the same key of A major and Mozart does not stray very far from the original in its successive elaborations during the course of this lengthy movement. While the first four variations admit different interpretations of the shared Andante directive between variations, such differences in tempo can become ineffective if there is an over-indulgent use of rubato within the variations, let alone within the opening statement of the theme itself.

The first two variations are simply decorated versions of the original theme while the third variation affords contrast by venturing into the key of A minor. The fourth variation returns to A major and introduces some crossed hand effects. This variation is potentially the most vulnerable to lapsing into saccharine sentimentality — a problem that is ameliorated by keeping the tempo moving and playing the left hand quaver octaves as if they were pizzicato on basses and cellos; this will necessarily keep one’s foot off the sustaining pedal long enough to avoid the treacly effect to which this variation can all too easily descend. For the final two variations Mozart remains very close to the original, achieving variety mainly in tempo by the choice of a reflective and searching Adagio followed by a spirited Allegro in common time. The Adagio need not be taken very slowly, although this may be the only option left to an interpretation that has already exploited rubato generously in the preceding variations. However, the Adagio can make its effect quite satisfactorily without undue ponderousness if the Andante variations have been kept moving along steadily. It is worth noting that a Mozart Adagio, however poignant and beautiful, is not a Beethoven Adagio — exaggerated slowness will not extract from it qualities that it cannot yield.

The A major tonality continues in the elegant Menuetto while the contrasting Trio section is in D major and again makes use of crossed hand effects. This movement is the one most likely to be ruined by excessive rubato, by which I mean that the essential dance rhythm of the minuet cannot survive arbitrary alterations of tempo.

The almost continuous dominance of major tonality throughout the first two movements requires the interpreter to guard against any cloying sweetness that such writing might inadvertently afford. Thus, Mozart’s choice of a minor key for the finale is both timely and appropriate, garnished as it is with the appearance of Turkish music of the kind that the composer used to great effect in The Abduction from the Seraglio, K.384 and the Violin Concerto in A major, K.219. Although the Rondo is mainly cast in A minor, there are contrasting episodes in A major and F# minor, with the final coda returning to the work’s home key of A major. This Turkish march is a whole world removed from the formal elegance of the preceding music and neither the interpreter nor the listener should shrink from enjoying the sheer ribaldry and noise of it all!

Brian Chapman ©1995

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