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Mozart: Piano Sonatas 13 - 18 (Decca)

The six sonatas in this collection, composed by Mozart between 1782 and 1789, in the last decade of his life, are six masterpieces that allow us to step inside Mozart’s universe and discover new aspects of it. This is true not only of the Sonata in C minor, K.457, by far the most tragic and modern of the set, but also of the other, apparently more “detached” ones. Even in places where he holds elements back, Mozart achieves a level of profundity that is well nigh unmatched. To complete the set of 18 sonatas, also included here are the Fantasia K.475 that Mozart published paired with the Sonata K.457, and the Sonatensatz K.312 in G minor, the most interesting and comprehensive of the sonata fragments Mozart left us.

The Sonata K.333 was presumably composed at the end of 1782. Its characteristic features are a fluid, lyrical quality and a lack of rhythmic jolts, but it nevertheless has a wealth of emotional conflict. The three movements share many thematic elements, and each one is in sonata form, even if the third is, strictly speaking, more a sonata rondo. The Allegro’s first theme is characterised by an appoggiatura on the first beat of each of the opening four bars, all on a different harmony. The unexpected move to the supertonic minor (C minor) in the second bar immediately contradicts the initial mood of serenity, and brings new emotional nuances. The noble second theme is likewise studded with appoggiaturas and wide melodic leaps. The development opens with the first motif but immediately veers off in different harmonic directions, with abrupt changes of register and chromatic inflections in the bass.

The Adagio cantabile is also based on a chain of melodic appoggiaturas, present in both the first and second themes. In the development section, the hitherto latent sense of drama comes fully to the fore. The first theme returns in inversion with many more dissonances, like a kind of distorted reflection. The second thematic idea also reappears transfigured and in a much more dramatic light, before a momentary pause on a dominant seventh introduces the return.

The Allegretto grazioso presents a style of writing typical of the piano concertos, with continual alternation between “solo” and “tutti”, and a proper solo cadenza written out in its entirety in the score, just before the conclusion. The mood is generally playful. The coda, based on a tonic pedal, is disconcerting too, and brings the piece to a light-hearted and unassuming close.

The pairing of the Fantasia K.475 and the Sonata K.457 in C minor was published by Artaria in 1785. The fantasia, composed after the sonata, is essentially structured in six episodes, two of which are closed forms: the D major Aria and the B flat major Minuet. The opening notes almost form an atonal chromatic series, and create a sense of claustrophobic disorientation. The theme is doubled in octaves, unharmonised, which gives it a dark and mysterious quality. Abrupt dynamic contrasts and pauses in the second bar contribute to creating the dramatic tension: these are not so much breathing points as yawning chasms, moments of mysterious silence interrupted by faint sighs in the instrument’s top register. After the various contrasting intermediate sections, the opening theme returns at the end of the piece in an even more tragic mood. The Fantasia comes to an end with a rapid ascending C minor scale that provides a dynamic lift-off into the Sonata K.457.

The first movement, Molto Allegro, opens with a rising figure in bare octaves (the archetypal “Mannheim rocket”), which alternates with a sighing reply in the top register, with chromatic harmonies. The contrasting second theme is lighter in character, and unfolds in a soprano-tenor dialogue. The development reaches a peak of dramatic tension at the end of an agitated crescendo based on the reiteration of the first figure, which is suddenly interrupted by pauses. In this recording, in the repeat of the development there is a short improvised cadenza based on fragments already heard in the Fantasia.

The change from the dark atmosphere of the first movement to the mellifluous cantabile quality of the E flat major Adagio is a moment of magic. Here the style is clearly derived from vocal music, with the expressive formulas of Italian opera faithfully reproduced. Although it is in a major key, this Adagio is one of the most nostalgic and heartfelt pieces by Mozart: the moments of happiness are depicted with such longing that they appear unattainably distant. The middle section is in A flat major, a key that in the unequal temperament used for this recording sounds wrong and illusory. It seems unstable, like the A flat major episode in the Adagio of the Sonata K.280. Even more foreign feeling is the subsequent modulation to G flat major, a key that here sounds almost dissonant, emphasising the distance from the home key.

The third movement is a very uneasy, powerfully dramatic rondo. The sudden dynamic flashes, extreme leaps between registers and unexpected long silences all help to keep the level of tension high throughout, all the way to the extraordinary conclusion.

The Sonata K.533 – K.494, completed in Vienna in January 1788, is the only one to have two different catalogue numbers: 533 refers to the first and second movements, and 494 to the third, which derives from the previously-written rondo, K.494 of 1786. This is the only one of Mozart’s sonatas to begin with a single voice, that continues for the first four bars. It is only with the entry of the second voice in the left hand that a harmonic identity takes shape. The same procedure is immediately repeated, when the theme reappears in the left hand, unharmonised, asserting complete parity between the two hands, something rather unusual for the period. The bridge passage restates the first theme in D minor and elaborates it with formulas that make it seem like a genuine development. This is followed by two contrasting “second subjects”, both of which first appear one voice at a time. In the recapitulation Mozart introduces some unexpected novelties in the return of the themes, adding various new extra elements. One particularly surprising aspect is the way the first theme makes an incursion into the second. The second movement, Andante, is likewise in sonata form and makes much of harsh dissonances, with numerous references back to ideas heard previously in the first movement. The second theme, in triplets, sounds like a duo for violin and cello, and gradually acquires increasing dramatic tension. The development intensifies the elements already heard, reaching a peak in the peroration in dissonant thirds, which sound unusually modern. The third movement is a rondo. The opening theme is apparently simple, almost naïve, but metrically fairly complex and asymmetrical. Bars 143-169 were added by Mozart to integrate the movement with the others in the sonata, endowing it with a grand contrapuntal cadenza. Here the rondo’s initial idea (slightly modified) appears again in the bass register, from where it kicks off the construction of a kind of “polyphonic skyscraper”, with as many as ten superimpositions, from bottom to top.

Mozart composed the Sonata K.545 in 1788, but the first edition appeared posthumously in 1805 under the title “Sonata facile”. The educational intent is confirmed by the indication “für Anfänger” (for beginners) given in his autograph catalogue (the Verzeichnüss). This explains the high frequency of passages that are useful for developing piano technique: scales, arpeggios and Alberti basses, without any special rhythmic or harmonic complexity. Despite its apparent simplicity, the first movement has some typically Mozartian subtle touches lurking in it. At the end of the bridge passage, for instance, the entry of the second theme is preceded by a bar of semiquaver trills (similar to what occurs in the Sonata K.309), which prepare the ground, increasing the sense of expectation with chromatic movement in the bass. The second theme, more cheerful than the first, presents the same intervals, but in inversion. Mozart uses conventional material in an unconventional manner, and does so in the development as well: indeed, here we again find scales and arpeggios, but no trace of the two principal themes. The discourse proceeds by re-elaborating the final idea of the exposition (now in G minor), in alternation with the customary scales.  There is another surprise in the recapitulation, where the first theme returns in the “wrong” key, not in C major but in F major, and the theme never comes back in the home key.

The second movement, based on a simple Alberti bass, nevertheless has an extended structure of four sections (ABCA’, the first two being repeated), plus a short final coda. The opening theme, with its almost childlike innocence, reappears in the second part of the B section. The third section, in G minor, is the only one in which the mood darkens, taking on a more dramatic note.

Lyricism gives way to the cheerful mood of the third movement (composed two years earlier, in June 1786), based on staccato thirds alternating with rapid scales. The many chromatic appoggiaturas make slight ripples in the generally linear quality of the melodies. The structure is that of a simple rondo (ABACA-coda), but one where snatches of melody derived from the opening theme appear in sections B and C. As in the other two movements, the middle section has a modulation to A minor which creates a momentary darkening of the mood. The return of the A section always comes via a pause on the dominant, providing the player with the possibility of introducing a short improvised cadenza.

The Sonata K.570 was composed in 1789 and published posthumously by Artaria in 1796, but, curiously, in a version for piano and obbligato violin. It has nevertheless been firmly established that Mozart did not intend the inclusion of a violin: in his thematic catalogue he specifies “auf Clavier allein” (for piano solo). The few pages of the original manuscript that have survived also confirm that the work is a sonata for piano solo. Mozart’s late style is here represented by the use of a few thematic elements and an essential, almost bald expressive manner. We do not find the same profusion of themes as in the K.333 or K.533 sonatas, and even the contrasts seem softened, cast in a mood of greater abstraction.

The Allegro, in 3/4, begins in a similar manner to the K.332 sonata, but here the phrases are more static and the first four bars are unharmonised, outlining the theme with a simple octave doubling. The second theme starts by repeating the first, which now unexpectedly reappears in the left hand. Above it, the right hand sets out the new idea of repeated staccato notes and chromatic melodies. This is followed by an intensification of the rhythm, with passages of rapid semiquavers bringing the exposition to a brilliant close.

The development opens with a sudden modulation to the distant key of D flat major. The second theme appears here in various keys (G minor, C minor, F minor) before leading, without any special dynamic contrasts, to the recapitulation.

The Adagio, in E flat major, is in rondo form, with a complex structure of ABACADA - coda. It opens with a simple figure that evokes first the sound of two horns, and, when repeated an octave above, of clarinets and flutes. The C part of the rondo is a desolate episode in C minor reminiscent of the Larghetto of the Piano Concerto K.491. The music abruptly takes on a dark, fatalistic colouring, emphasised by the left-hand repeated notes and the dissonances of the appoggiaturas in thirds in the right. The D section takes us off in a new direction, to the key of A flat major. This, as stated above in reference to the Sonata K.457, acquires a terribly unstable and illusory note in the unequal tuning used here. The return of the initial theme will then sound both consoling and nostalgic, especially in the coda. In the following Allegretto, Mozart displays remarkable economy of means, but makes much of unexpected accents and dissonances between the bass and melody. The playful mood prevails in the subsequent sections, all of which have a pronounced rhythm character.

The Sonata K.576 in D major was written in 1789, possibly as the first in a set of three sonatas commissioned by the Princess Friederike of Prussia. The set was not completed, however, and this was the last piano sonata Mozart composed. It was published posthumously in 1805.

As in the Sonata K.570, the writing in the first movement demonstrates remarkable economy of means, and here too the second theme takes up elements of the first, superimposed in counterpoint. The mood, however is more brilliant and playful, with numerous surprises and unexpected changes of character. The movement opens with a fanfare theme on a D major chord. Immediately, however, the fanfare gives way to a series of gruppetti with pauses in between that give the phrase a tentative note. The second theme, as in the K.570 sonata, takes up an element from the first (the fanfare), using it canonically. The development starts off repeating the final two bars of the exposition and is based on reworkings of the second theme that intensify the use of contrapuntal procedures.

The second movement is one of the most inspired and enigmatic Adagios that Mozart ever composed. In ABA form, it opens with a theme in A major marked by a refined cantabile quality and the hazy effect of many chromatic notes. The tormented B section in F sharp minor is highly reminiscent of the Adagio of the K.488 concerto. The sighing “tears” of this section alternate with soft A major scales, which here sound like smiles amidst the tears. We find the “sobs” of this section again in the mystifying coda, where they are now transfigured into A major. This creates a dream-like mood, where the A major scales now make an otherworldly complement to the enchanted conclusion.

The chromatic appoggiaturas heard in the Adagio return in the following rondo, but now with a note of brilliance. The cheerful, graceful character of the first theme recalls Papageno’s arias in The Magic Flute. There is a concertante style of writing, with the alternation of “solo” and “tutti” already seen in the K.333 sonata. The B theme of the rondo is based on the same opening figure, but now treated contrapuntally, in a return to the procedure with the second theme of the first movement. The themes are developed with much use of canonic entries, straying to distant keys but without ever abandoning the light and detached feel.

The Sonatensatz K.312 (K6 590d) in G minor is a fragment dating from 1790. This is therefore the last sonata movement composed by Mozart, one year before his death. Mozart’s hand stops at bar 106, towards the end of the development. The manuscript, currently held in the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, was sold by the Viennese collector Aloys Fuchs to Felix Mendelssohn, who acquired it to give to his wife Cécile as a wedding present. In the autograph there is a partial completion by an unknown hand, which itself breaks off at bar 145. The first edition of the Sonatensatz was published posthumously in Vienna in 1805, in a reconstructed version of 178 bars, which has until the present day remained the one most regularly performed, and also appears in the recent Neue Mozart Ausgabe published by Bärenreiter.

For this recording I’ve chosen the same piano used for the preceding sonatas, the Fazioli F 278 no. 2473, tuned to Vallotti unequal temperament. The special transparent timbre this effects gives new vitality to Mozart’s piano writing, allowing the “pronunciation” of every articulation indicated in the score to be satisfactorily characterised. The particularly responsive mechanism has proved ideal for performing trills and ornaments, and provided a vast dynamic range even in the most rapid passages.

I wanted to deliver the indications of articulation and dynamics in a very radical manner, breaking with a particular performance tradition based on smooth phrasing and the achievement of a “lovely sound” as an end in itself. In contrast, I tried to give a precise, dramatic meaning to every musical gesture in the score, further emphasising the points of dramatic tension by way of flexible note-lengths. In line with this standpoint, there has been no compression of the sound, so the strong dynamic jolts that Mozart wanted remain intact, and are a characteristic of this interpretation. The use of the sustaining pedal has also been limited to those instances where I wanted to create a strongly-defined “register”, with the intention of getting close to the sound of the fortepianos that Mozart wrote these sonatas on. From this point of view, I calibrated the use of the soft pedal to obtain the greatest difference in timbre, to thin the sound down while maintaining absolute transparency even in pianissimos. Respecting the practice of the time, repeats are often played with improvised decorations. At some pauses before the recapitulations I have inserted brief improvised cadenzas consistent with the examples Mozart himself wrote at similar points.

Mozart’s piano sonatas, and these final six in particular, are an essential part of our civilisation’s heritage. The quantity and variety of expressive styles, the profound introspection, the dramatic power that Mozart achieves here have been for me a continual voyage of discovery, a source of constant enrichment. I hope that the enthusiasm that this music unleashed in me during the recording sessions can also reach the listener with the same intensity and joy that it gave me in performance.

Roberto Prosseda