Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Complete Piano Sonatas
Mao Fujita (piano)
rec. 2021, b-sharp Studio, Berlin
SONY 19658710762 [5 CDs: 301]
It is a mark of the complexity of Mozart’s solo piano music that pianists often avoid beginning recitals with his works; this is inordinately precise music. These eighteen sonatas might not be of the same towering level of greatness of, say, Bach’s Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin, an unquestionable Everest in western music, but they can make a powerful statement for a pianist with youth, charm and a considerable amount of imagination on his side. They can also be a minefield that once mired in it the pianist is largely trapped.
The young Japanese pianist Mao Fujita is quite remarkable. It would have been much simpler for him to have recorded a single disc of the sonatas, as many have done before him; instead, he gives us the entire cycle which is a much riskier undertaking. This Sony set, recorded in Berlin between August and November 2021, could be said to be almost ‘fresh’ from his five Verbier Festival recitals of the complete sonatas which he gave between the 19th and 30th July of the same year. Verbier is a cauldron of chamber music creativity; it’s an environment tailormade for inspired music-making, whether in solo recitals or playing with others (Fujita played Arensky and Ravel piano trios in July 2022, for example). Perhaps because of the proximity to the festival, or simply just because of this pianist’s magnetism and sheer artistry, the Sony cycle has all the hallmarks, spontaneity and frisson of something that is being captured on the wing. There’s nothing about this set of the sonatas that inhabits the world of the recording studio.
Although this cycle is presented chronologically, Fujita played the sonatas at Verbier in a different order – and I assume recorded them that way. Composed between 1774 and 1789 these eighteen sonatas bridge Mozart’s adult life. Listening to these sonatas gives us a reasonable insight into Mozart’s musical style over the period – although it’s not as interesting as one we get with the piano concertos. The early sonatas can be very slight; the late sonatas not always soul-searching. Nor is it as demanding a listen as the Beethoven cycle – not by a long distance.
Truly great pianism is a vivid and visual art form. This is, of course, obvious to gauge in a live recital but much harder to do from a recording studio. One gets this with Cortot’s Chopin, Schnabel’s Beethoven, Sonoda’s Bach – and with Fujita’s Mozart – where the performances seem to be characterised by artists we see looking towards us from a portrait rather than blankly behind it. Listening to Fujita’s Mozart’s sonatas one is aware of an artist entirely comfortable in expressing himself with a kind of giddy joviality. He plays these sonatas as if he’s unwrapping a Mozartian present for the first time, or perhaps putting together a musical jigsaw puzzle. There’s an entire sense of discovery here. His finger work is like mercury in the way that they move like quicksilver across the keyboard, the tone silvern-laminated in its purity – the antithesis of how Charles Ives described this ‘lady-finger music’ when Fujita gives such pristine brilliance to what is really quite fiendishly complicated scoring.
In common with many south Asian pianists, Mao Fujita has, in the past, been overly faithful to the score he’s playing. This Mozart is rather different, however. Mozart was hardly the staidest of composers, especially in these sonatas, but their very miniature size can sometimes overstate some of his drier phrasing. In the Allegretto of the K570, for example, Fujita sees the musical joke – something which Leonskaja, in a more profoundly played performance, and Fazil Say, in a more mannered one, read differently. In those very early sonatas, where Mozart only asked for piano and forte, Fujita sees a path to a wider dynamic range on either side.
Fujita can hold his own against some of the greatest pianists in these works. In his Melodiya recording of the last four sonatas, Mikhail Pletnev is like a Renaissance draughtsman etching these sonatas with fabulous precision; but they are almost humourless works of art, too (rather typical of this pianist in general). Fujita’s style for these late sonatas isn’t just a glowing one, with a colour range like fractals of light through stained glass, but also of buoyancy and energy. The difference is often more than just of degree: Pletnev can burn slowly like a candle; Fujita’s is like an unstable current, with a flare of energy.
I think it’s easy in these works to be economical with them, just to assume, as Ives did, that there is little beneath the surface. There are countless examples of Fujita giving these sonatas their own dramatic voice. An unwritten luftpause that can sometimes act as the punchline for one of Mozart’s little musical jokes; dotted notes that explode like atoms; accents pepper sprayed, and phrases sometimes delivered as if he’s in a jamming session.
None of this is to say that Fujita can’t do the opposite. In the K457 sonata, there is a rare depth even if he holds it in check. He might not take its opening octaves as broadly – nor as stately – as some but this is partly in keeping with his view of this sonata in general. It’s less unstable in its major and minor key conflict in the Molto allegro, and although he makes us aware of the unfolding tragedy of the Allegro assai he isn’t swept up in it. Arguably, this sonata is the finest Mozart wrote, and probably his most personal, and I think Fujita is aware of its almost Beethovenian characteristics: it’s a performance that fans the flames and intensity of passion of a sonata that predates, but seems uncannily similar to, the ‘Pathétique’.
The virtuosity that Fujita displays in this set is extraordinarily refined – and immaculate. The fast, right-hand sixteenth notes in the final movement of the K332, the repeated arpeggios from the Allegretto of the K330, and his brilliantly inventive counterpoint in the K576, the final sonata. But even in a work like the K283, the relative simplicity of Mozart’s writing, rather than being played as an easy work, is as disciplined and imaginatively interpreted as in the more complex sonatas.
This is, I think, very much Mozart from a young man’s perspective. Moreover, Fujita has been successful at managing to be an everyman to Mozart through his adult life span. This is not Mozart that ages; it remains completely fresh and exciting. If there was risk then it has been dissolved.
There’s probably no better advocacy for this magnificent set than when one
hears it along side Robert Levin’s complete recording on Mozart’s own fortepiano. Placed in the context of the First Viennese School, with the improvisations and decorations in the repeats – of which there are none here – the difference between a highly idiomatic eighteenth-century approach and a free-spirited, almost jazz-inflected twenty-first century one is remarkable. Mao Fujita’s Mozart cycle is perhaps the freshest, and certainly one of the most joyous, now in the catalogue.
Previous review: Stephen Greenbank (November 2022)
Sonata in C major K.279
Sonata in F major K.280
Sonata in B flat major K.281
Sonata in E flat major K.282
Sonata in G major K.283
Sonata in D major K.284
Sonata in C major K.309
Sonata in A minor K.310
Sonata in D major K.311
Sonata in C major K.330
Sonata in A major K.331
Sonata in F major K.332
Sonata in B-flat major K.333
Sonata in C minor K.457
Sonata in F major K.533/494
Sonata in C major K.545
Sonata in B-flat major K.570
Sonata in D major K.576
Published: November 28, 2022