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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

RECORDING OF THE MONTH

 

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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
The Piano Sonatas (plus fantasies, rondos)
see end of review for details
Leon McCawley (piano)
rec. 5-8 Dec 2005, 22-25 May 2006, Potton Hall, Suffolk
AVIE AV2105 [5CDs: 63.59 + 78:10 + 71:01 + 61:22 + 70:32]

 

This is a magnificent achievement and illustrates firstly how much there is in Mozartís piano sonatas and secondly what a very fine pianist is Leon McCawley. We now live in a world where musicians tackle complete cycles with skill and individuality that would have been alien to many fine players of the past. Of course Beethovenís piano sonatas have been produced in a steady stream since Schnabelís pioneering set in 1930s but are Mozartís sonatas worthy of such treatment. There are several that are always in the repertoire, but for example we have only one by Lipatti and there are two versions of K330; similarly Horowitz had favourites. For complete sets of Mozart sonatas there are far fewer than Beethoven or possibly even Schubert. There was the pioneering Walter Klien now on VOX whose Turnabout LPs were much played by my Dad. Barenboim EMI and Eschenbach DG are both excellent and the standout in the past twenty years has been Uchida on Philips. This set, competitively priced and in a slim-line box, should be regarded as of the top rank.

Here in Mozartís 250th. Anniversary year McCawley has set down all these works - plus some extras Ė in two sessions in a few months. I first heard him as a BBC Young Musician of the Year. He gave two memorable concerts at Lake District Summer Music in 1997; firstly as a soloist memorable in Prokofiev and the next night accompanying the Chilingirian Quartet in one of Dvorakís piano quartets. McCawley is clearly a musician; much more than just a pianist. Iíve seen him at the Proms and heís recorded works as varied as Beethoven and Hans Gal.

Leon McCawley has clearly studied these Mozart works and despite recording them in a relatively short time is right inside them. Playing the five discs has been a sheer joy and I canít imagine anybody being anything but blown away with his playing and understanding of Mozartís development as a composer-pianist. Whilst listening to the sonatas - here presented in chronological order - I found the excellent concise and informative notes by Malcolm Macdonald very useful. They certainly aided my listening pleasure.

Going back to my original comments there are problems inherent in a "complete cycle". Firstly to go through all the sonatas one after another in a short time is an odd thing to do. The danger can be that otherwise some discs in a multi-set remain unplayed. Reviewing this set has meant that I started at the beginning and proceeded to the end; something my long-suffering wife - do you really need 25 sets of the Brahms Symphonies? - will testify is unusual. However seated in a French gite in Brittany over half-term gave me an opportunity to do so. I came to appreciate the special joys of these still underrated works. Leon McCawley also has a satisfying skill in neither embracing the "Dresden China" approach nor giving these late eighteenth century pieces the veneer and patina of late nineteenth!

To go through each work in minute detail would be tedious and unnecessary although I wrote copious notes whilst listening to this marvellous journey develop. These will be useful when I get around to a comparative survey of the Mozart sonatas which Iíd love to do! I hope that by making some key observations you will get a flavour of the delight I had in listening to these performances and will continue to do so in the coming years, God willing. The sublime K570 is playing as I write. This is such a great work which I certainly have not paid enough credit to previously!

Placing the sonatas in chronological order was revelatory and I realized on Disc One that I didnít know these early pieces at all well; back to the multi disc problem! Quickly we see development from K 279 to maturity in the slow movement of K280. This latter work was a joyful discovery with two more serious movements followed by a cheerful presto contrasting with the sadness of the adagio. In K281 McCawley shows he understands its origins in the forte piano; I notice this was a comment on Alicia De Larrochaís complete set which was so well received last year. Also the notes point out that Beethoven was influenced by the finale of K 282 when he wrote the "Moonlight".

K284, which commences the second disc was another undiscovered gem. Itís wonderful with a wistful Rondo and Polonaise followed by a Theme and Variations in Mozartís longest piano movement. Many may start with K309 and K311, both full of Mozartian wit and I must mention Schnabelís comment that "Mozart is too easy for children and too difficult for adults". This came to me strongly during the "allegro con spirito" of K309. What spirit McCawley conveys in a strong and not inappropriate manner. By this stage I was totally won over but I was intrigued how Iíd compare his renditions of sonatas Iíve known and loved for over 35 years.

Watchers of that splendid film "A room with a view" will recall Helena Bonham-Carter firing away at the beginning of K310ís "Allegro maestoso". My definitive version has always been Lipattiís recording from 1950, but McCawley is so very good and brings his own character to this marvellous work aided by the splendid sound; not the first fine record to emanate from Potton Hall! Iím sure if you hear this one movement you will want to get this great value collection. Comparing De Larrocha shows almost identical timings but itís interesting how McCawley is forceful from the off whereas the older artist presents a slightly more restrained account; good though it is and also deserving of a detailed listen. This sonata is a good riposte to those who question why one wants more than one version of the same piece. Playing these two side by side illustrates why! However the comfort is that, apart from the time-to-listen factor, both sets will give you differing insights into Mozart and take up little room on your shelf nor remove much from your wallet!

Disc Three will probably be played first by many as it sees very familiar pieces loved and performed by pianists both professional and amateur. I love McCawleyís way with K330 where he stays true to the music whilst adding his own felicities to the score. Iím always reminded of Horowitz playing this piece on his return to Moscow in 1986 but this is a version of the top rank to be enjoyed differently but at the same level. K331 begins with the sublime variations which were later "over-done "by Max Reger as an orchestral piece. I reviewed Wilhelm Kempff earlier this year in this piece and found that this superb pianist seemed to be viewing Mozart from a late nineteenth century viewpoint. This is not the case here. The playing is staggering but the youthful quality of the Salzburg genius is all-present. K331 and K332 are also on this disc which makes a wonderful recital of its own.

The later works are sometimes overlooked by some but on Disc Four we have the more contemplative K333 which is given a most moving rendition. The so-called "easy" sonata K545 is another pearl. On the final disc the later sonatas come through as masterpieces of the genre but I found no longueurs throughout the five discs. My regret is that I have only had time to skim the surface of the delights of this set. I must leave you to discover how great an achievement it is.

In the time available although I havenít been able to do full comparisons, I did have Karl Engelís recordings to hand; part of a 12 disc Warner set Iím working through for future review. Compared with McCawley I found Engel dull and perfunctory and not in the same class. The Klara Wurzt set on Brilliant Classics is a very good bargain and fine on its own terms but again during the comparisons of K311 and K330 I found she lacked the "extra" that McCawley brings.

Listening to this collection has been an immense privilege and I strongly recommend the set to all lovers of great music. It has been one of the most enjoyable experiences listening to McCawley and this box is bound to end up in my "Records of the Year".

David R Dunsmore

Details
CD 1 [63.59]
Sonatas in C, K279 (1775) [13.55]; F, K280 (1775) [12.41]; B Flat, K281 (1775) [13.20]; E flat, K282 (1775) [11.06]; G, K283 (1775) [12.10]
CD 2 [78.10]
Sonatas in D, K284 (1777) [25.14]; D, K311 (1777) [15.48]; C, K309 (1777) [17.33]; A, K310 (1778) [18.58]
CD 3 [71.01]
Sonatas in C, K330 (1783) [18.28]; A, K331 (1783) [23.32]; F, K332 (1783) [17.58]; Rondo in A minor, K511 (1787) [10.29]
CD 4 [61.22]
Sonatas in B flat, K333 (1783) [21.33]; C minor, K457 (1784) [17.34]; C, K545 (1788) [10.33]; Fantasia in C minor, K475 (1785) [11.08]
CD 5 [70.32]
Sonatas in F, K533 (1788) [23.34]; B flat, K570 (1789) [17.42]; D, K576 (1789) [14.43]; Eine Kleine Gigue, K574 (1789) [1.39]; Menuetto in D, K355 (c.1789) [3.08]; Adagio in B minor, K540 (1788) [9.00]

 



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