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BARGAIN OF THE MONTH

 

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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
The Complete Solo Piano Music [627:36]
Disc 1 [57:48]
Sonata in C major, KV 279 (No.1)
Sonata in F major, KV 280 (No.2)
Sonata in B flat major, KV 281 (No.3)
Disc 2 [60:32]
Sonata in E flat major, KV 282 (No.4)
Sonata in G major, KV 283 (No.5)
Sonata in D major, KV 284 (No.6)
Disc 3 [58:30]
Sonata in C major, KV 309 (No.7)
Sonata in D major, KV 311 (No.8)
Sonata in A minor, KV 310 (No.9)
Disc 4 [70:40]
Sonata in C major, KV 330 (No.10)
Sonata in A major, KV 331 (No.11)
Sonata in F major, KV 332 (No.12)
Disc 5 [59:42]
Sonata in B flat major, KV 333 (No.13)
Fantasie in C minor, KV 475
Sonata in C minor, KV 457 (No.14)
Disc 6 [73:42]
Sonata in F major, KV 533+494 (No.15)
Sonata in C major, KV 545 (No.16)
Sonata in B flat major, KV 570 (No.17)
Sonata in D major, KV 576 (No.18)
Discs 7-10 [246:42]
Variations: Kk. 24, 25, Anh.138a/547a, 179, 180, 264, 265, 352, 353, 354, 398, 455, 460, 500, 573, 613, Adagio in b minor K. 540, Fantasia in d minor K. 397, Gigue K. 574, Klavierstück K. 33B, Marche funebre del Sig. Maestro Contrapunto K. 453a, Modulating Prelude K.VI (missing), Overture (Suite) K. 399, Prelude (Capriccio) K. 284a/395), Prelude and Fugue in C K. 394, Rondos: Kk. 485, 511
[4 CDs: 60:37, 63:07, 61:37, 61:21]
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano)
rec. Länna Church, Sweden, August 1996 (Sonatas), August 1997 (Variations)
BIS CD-1633/36 [57:48 + 60:32 + 58:30 + 70:40 + 59:42 + 73:42 + 60:37 + 63:07 + 61:37 + 61:21]


This is the third bite of the cherry as far as these recordings go. They were originally issued as single discs, then as two reduced price box sets, and now as a ‘10 CD for the price of 4’ single box. This is a strict case of re-packaging. The discs here are presented in easy to use sleeves, labelled as they were for the original boxes and with the original booklets from the two sets. Those booklets offer superbly detailed and informative programme notes by Julius Wender.
 
These recordings have been well received in the past, and cut-price issues like this are always welcome – especially when the presentation quality is at the high standard of the original, i.e. not having received any form of reprocessing. Those who bought these discs at full price all those years ago may rend their garments in distress at seeing such cut price re-marketing, but repeat customers can at least comfort themselves that another gorgeous reasonably-priced gift option has become available.
 
Brautigam’s performances are proof that the fortepiano has come of age in terms of acceptability, not only in terms of academic authenticity, but also as an attractive and listenable alternative to modern instrument recordings. The ear rapidly adjusts to the piano sound, which is rich and sonorous, and as lyrical and expressive as any recording I can name, modern or early – especially in the pleasantly resonant church acoustic. The range is the same as that of a modern instrument – one might argue that the scale is smaller, but in fact I would suggest that, on the evidence of this set alone, the (this) fortepiano has as much if not more to offer in terms of colour and dynamics. A modern grand of course has more sustaining power and greater trouser-flapping bass and volume in terms of decibels, but that’s not what Mozart is about. Whatever the arguments, Paul McNulty’s 1993 instrument based on that of a 1795 instrument by Anton Gabriel Walter is as much the star of this show as Brautigam.
 
A number of box sets of the Mozart sonatas have passed my way, and with Uchida and Schiff having been at the top of the heap for a while, I think one or two comparisons might be in order. Taking K333 almost at random I find myself taking to Brautigam’s phrasing immediately. The opening should sound like the sweet breath of fresh air which comes in on opening the window on a sunny spring morning. I get all of that with the fortepiano texture rolling underneath that deceptively simple melody. I once had a completely mad composition student who was determined to write piano sonatas in the style of Mozart. This is of course a laudable study exercise, but he really meant it, saying that it was ‘a shame’ that Mozart was dead, and that as a result there would be no more Mozart sonatas. In a misguided attempt to help out I worked together with this strange person on the project for a few weeks. In the end I think I learned more than he did, finally discovering the sheer genius of Mozart from the bottom up and the inside out – realising the hard way how impossible it is to manufacture new Mozart sonatas.
 
Back to K333, and Uchida’s lightness of touch is entirely complimentary to the music. It may seem a bit perverse to put a modern piano version up against the fortepiano, but to me this is entirely the point. You probably won’t admit it in public, but you may at times have found yourself becoming a little bored by Mozart’s sonatas. On the evidence here this may well have to do with modern instruments. Like all great music it demands attention when well played, and serves badly as background muzak. In trying to analyse why I now prefer the fortepiano to Uchida’s performance I think the answer lies partly in the attack of the notes. The ‘ping’ at the front of the note is an important factor in how that note will sound or be perceived to sound. I’m prepared to be shot down in flames, but lighter, harder hammers on a fortepiano seem to me to intrude less into the overall texture of the music. There is so much going on in the opening of K457 (for instance) that returning to the fortepiano makes Uchida’s recording seem like quite a bumpy ride in places.
 
This plays out somewhat differently in the subsequent Adagio. Surprisingly, the sustaining qualities of this fortepiano are not dissimilar to the modern grand, but show how hard a true legato is to achieve without the modern action, especially in those descending thirds.
 
The drama of the music takes on a colour and nuance all of its own with the fortepiano. Mozart knew only this kind of instrument, and you can hear how he makes use of the thrilling darkness of the lower range to create special effects and moods. So many factors are involved here – lower string tension on a wooden rather than a metal frame make a big difference of course: the sheer contrast in sound-world between low and high on a fortepiano is so different to that on a modern grand, whose maker’s aims have long been consistency throughout. I love Uchida’s playing, but plunging those depths on a Steinway is hardly the same as on McNulty’s Walter – the notes are there, but the impact of all that gripping, other-worldly sonority just ain’t. To be sure, if Mozart were alive today he would certainly have written for the modern grand, but he wouldn’t have written the same music.
 
With exactly the same location, recording team and technical set-up, the Variations collection is entirely consistent in sound to the Sonatas, which were recorded just a year earlier. A 4 CD set of piano variations may seem a bit daunting, but when, just for starters, you hear what Mozart makes of ‘Twinkle twinkle Little Star ’ (‘Ah, vous dirai-je Maman’) you will, I sincerely hope, be hooked for life.
 
I recommend this superb box to anyone looking for a set of Mozart sonatas without even entering into the ancient and modern instrument debate. Look at it this way – 10 CDs for the price of 4 means you will be buying the Variations, and getting the Sonatas thrown in for free: and that in Mozart year, yippee! If this is not a bargain then I throw in the towel - the penny is well spent that saves a groat ...
 
Dominy Clements

see also review of Variations set by Christopher Howell

and Sonatas set by Simon Foster



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