youíll appreciate this is playing of brilliance, fluency
and flair. The instrument is a modern copy of a fortepiano
made around 1777 by Johann Andreas Stein, whose instruments
Mozart admired. So this is the type of instrument he liked
playing and for which ideally he composed his piano sonatas.
Whether itís exactly or always the Mozart you want in these
works today is another matter.
a scholar-performer, is well known and appreciated for the
several Mozart concertos he recorded on fortepiano with
the Academy of Ancient Music/Christopher Hogwood for LíOiseau-Lyre,
sadly no longer available. So itís good news heís embarking
on a cycle of the piano sonatas for DHM, of which this is
volume 1. But beware, though these are Mozartís earliest
piano sonatas they arenít early works. By 1775 heíd already
written Symphonies 25 and 29.
familiar with Levinís concerto recordings, I wasnít prepared
for the sheer ťlan of the first movement of his K279. This
really is Allegro with a vengeance. It has a delightfully
bouncy exuberance taking full advantage of the fortepianoís
ability, as distinct from the modern piano, to achieve energy
without being overly sonorous. This is more like a lute
in overdrive, in occasionally calmer moments a harp, and
more brittle than either. Yet the poetic elements arenít
neglected, as in the sudden slightest lingering at the first
falling crotchet-quaver phrase ending (tr. 1 0:19) without
a running semiquaver bass. Enjoy the skittish pyramid of
rising and falling quavers with appoggiaturas (0:57). From
3:19 the right hand melody has a little sway.
makes the second movement a fastish Andante which allows
easier appreciation of its structure but rather sweeps over
some of its beauties. The dynamic contrasts are delicately
shaded with delicious tone. Levin seems to become even more
engaged in adding deft ornamentation in the repeats, especially
that of the second part.
In the Allegro
finale thereís no lack of bold dynamic contrasts which go
with the overall gusto. Indeed Levin brings such a manic
feel to it all you get so involved itís like being on a
merry-go-round and you wonder if youíll ever be able to
get off. A calmer third theme (tr. 3 0:20) offers a reprieve
but itís soon swallowed up. However it proves to have staying
power in the second part to stave off total exhaustion.
Again the nifty added ornamentation in the repeats, notably
at the quieter moments, is fully relished without disturbing
the overall canter.
Harmonia Mundi recording is clean and clear, neither too
close nor distanced, a natural representation of the instrument
in good listening conditions.
I first compared
Ronald Brautigam (Bis CD 835), Levinís predecessor in surveying
all Mozartís piano sonatas on fortepiano in 1996. He uses
a modern copy of a fortepiano made by Anton Gabriel Walter
rather later, about 1795, so he doesnít quite match Levin
for contemporaneity. Heís recorded more closely in an airier
church acoustic. This gives his fortepiano a more ample,
harp-like, mellifluous sound, less bright and brittle than
Levinís but still more percussive than modern piano. So
the rhythmic impetus is clear but thereís also more glow
to the melodic aspect. Iíd guess thereís more artifice in
the construction of this sound, but this is music which
celebrates artifice at a high level. Iíd say thereís more
difference between Levinís drier, more harpsichord like,
fortepiano and Brautigamís than there is between Brautigamís
fortepiano and a modern piano.
in turn affects the playing. In the first movement Brautigam
is less headlong in manner, more strongly phrased and melodically
shaped. Levin is more domestic, intimate, exciting, less
controlled and mannered, with a wide-spanned conviction
of statement. He provides more dynamic shading, is bolder
and more satirical, but blink and youíll miss much of this.
Then, just for
this sonata I compared probably the best known modern piano
recording, that by Mitsuko Uchida from 1984 (Philips 4683562).
This presents a further stage in mellifluousness. The music
becomes more urbanely refined and dainty. Itís all smooth
contours with the modern pianoís greater resonance. Uchida
also smoothes out the appoggiaturas, for example in the
first movement Ďpyramidí.
Here are the
|| 4:49† [6:58]
|| 5:41 [8:16]
|| 3:13 [4:45]
|| 13:43 [19:59]
The most marked
difference is Levinís pacier slow movement. Uchida observes
the first part repeats in all movements but omits the second
part repeats, creating a structural imbalance. The Ďtimingsí
in brackets are those she would attain were all repeats
observed, as they are by Levin and Brautigam.
In the slow
movement Brautigam lets the melody linger and arc more,
with a little more dynamic contrast, so thereís a feel of
a Mozart arioso beginning to approach a dramatic scena.
Levinís greater pace makes things more carefree, aware of
inherent expressive potential but quizzical, even slightly
mocking in manner. The sophistication of Levinís additional
and varied ornaments in the repeats, not provided by Brautigam,
adds to this effect.
emphasises the lingering aspect of the melody to more wistful
effect, even though sheís careful to keep the pulse flowing.
One advantage that the modern instrument has is the ability
to sustain the dotted minim high Cs over the quaver accompaniment
in the second part from bar 51 (tr.2 3:32 in Levin).
In the finale
Brautigam provides even more of a rumbustious scamper than
Levin, which is partly to do with the fuller tone obtained
from the acoustic and closer recording. Hereís vigour and
humour, gentleness in the third theme and boldness, dramatic
dynamic contrasts and exciting fingerwork. In comparison
Levin is firmly articulated but quieter and more mercurial.
Uchida is calmer still, so the third theme is more a variation
of the same mood. Her contrasts are of tone, with strength
and lightness juxtaposed in the second part.
Both Levin and
Brautigam make this a work of more impact than Uchida. A
choice between Levin and Brautigam would depend on whether
you wished the first movement from Levin, or finale from
Brautigam to be the more ebullient. My own preference would
be for Brautigamís greater breadth in the first two movements
but in Levinís favour Ė as in all three sonatas -† would
be his more classical approach.
Turning to the
second sonata, K280, Levin appears more measured in the
first movement than in K279, even though the marking in
K280 is Allegro assai rather than just Allegro. However,
this suits its majestic, upstanding character and allows
more delight in the contrast at 0:34, in a variation of
the opening gambit, between gruff, loud bass and rippling,
soft treble. The dominant quality in his playing here is
wiry resilience, with, in the second part, startling crunching
arpeggios with which several phrases end, especially from
The tempo of
K280ís slow movement is Adagio and the key has changed from
F major to F minor. Levin shows it has a soulful, world-weary
sorrow, flecked with recollections of beauty in the second
phase of its opening section (tr. 5 0:29) and then hope
(0:57). The dynamic contrasts are dramatically applied as
part of the poised appreciation of tragic circumstances
while Levinís ornamentation on repeats grows ever more elaborate.
The Presto finale,
F major again, is bright as a button. Levinís playing sparkles
crisply. You can picture a dazzling display of acrobats.
Here are the
confident and flowing in the first movement of K280, rather
more voluble in effect than Levin but with this somewhat
bumptious. This is because his loud bass in the Ďvariationí
I mentioned earlier is heavier but the soft treble cooler,
without Levinís sweet delicacy. Brautigam does, however,
make you more aware of the contrast between the crotchet
bass lead and semiquavers, then quavers in the treble following,
a contrast he makes clear throughout. Again the difference
between instruments, acoustic and recording is a factor.
Brautigamís second part is grand and imposing.
Levin is more
aristocratic, jauntier and lighter on his feet. That treble
response is more graceful and its rhythmic life is more
apparent. Levinís second part is more playful. Both players
have a fine feeling for the overall span of the movement.
To the slow
movement Brautigam brings the poise but also formality,
full tone and shape of a tragic aria with happy, then poignant
recollections taking over the first and a more soulful second
section, the suspensions which end key phases maximally
faster tempo makes the insistency of the dotted quaver/semiquaver/quaver
rhythmic cell clearer. He portrays a more intimate, less
operatic sorrow. But I feel his imaginative application
of ornamentation is here excessive, detracting from, almost
as if a mask to distort or dispel the feeling. For example,
in the repeat of the second phase of the first section Brautigam,
for the first time, ornaments one of the musical sighs,
at bar 16. In that same repeat (tr. 5 1:55) Levin finds
10 opportunities for embellishment. Less is more and more
This does offer
the advantage of a return to a pure line for the first presentation
of the second section (2:52). But Levin decorates the fermata,
the short pause at 3:55, first time and then the second
part of this section (4:00) which begins with a plaintively
succession of Cs in the right hand, lacks the simplicity
of Brautigam. That fermata decoration first time around
lasted 5 seconds, on the repeat (6:11) it lasts 22. In that
repeated section I began to lose sense of the original line
and have a vision of a Liszt transcription.
In the finale
the difference between Brautigam and Levin is much the same
as in the first movement. Do you prefer Brautigamís more
thunderous bass or Levinís more glittering treble? Brautigam
is more daringly vivacious but his semiquavers are a bit
of a stampede. Levin is wittier, the dynamic contrasts more
pert in their detonation. A 14 second fermata decoration
here (tr. 6 3:18) just adds to the fun. Smashing playing
for an iconoclastic close.
third piano sonata, K281, is notable for its total assurance
from the start of the first movement. Thereís more of a
sense of continuous span in its florid melody and contrapuntal
argument presented by Levin as an inspired rush of ideas.
The second part (tr. 7 2:20) relishes imitation between
the hands and a sense of achievement as it culminates.
The slow movement
is marked Andante amoroso and has an appropriately seductive
opening descent, but in its second phase the ardour becomes
ambivalent with rather skittish appoggiaturas from Levin.
Its second part (2:51) is at first more probing and complex
but soon more delicate as at 3:15 the opening descent is
presented at once more expansively melodically but more
trippingly in rhythm. Those later appoggiaturas calm as
if the fluttering of eyelashes.
The rondo finale,
Mozartís first in his piano sonatas, is growingly frolicsome
and the appoggiaturas play a cheeky part here. Because of
the inherent repetition of the form the only repeated passages
are the first bouncy and then strident second episode from
tr. 9 1:22 which supplies an abrasive G minor central section
amidst the general B flat major glee.
Here are the
Again itís Brautigamís
more generous slow movement thatís the marked difference.
Brautigam presents the first movement of K281 as a song
in the main vivaciously rippling, all of whose ingredients
are unified in a continuous swirl of progression. Contrasts
of dynamic and echoing phrases are somewhat skimmed over.
Levin is more analytical, with a lucid display of structure.
For example, the second phase of the melodic argument (0:28)
is clearly a new facet. All contrasts are given neat attention
and every nuance caught. The overall effect is less virtuosic
but more smiling, even grinning.†
As before, Brautigamís
slow movement has greater breadth than Levinís, making it
a languorous seduction, savouring the indulgence. The appoggiaturas
have a dilenttante feel. This relaxation is a little decadent.
He even allows himself a little embellishment on 2 repeated
phrases. Levin is quieter but more exquisite. He conveys
the tension in the dynamic contrasts, shows the appoggiaturas
to be at first a bit of daring and parades his plentiful
embellishments as further titillation.
finale, after a smoothish rondo theme, dazzles like a conjurerís
sleight of hand and incorporates a boisterously dramatic
second episode. Levin is also at his most unbuttoned, but
to jollier effect, the dynamic contrasts paradoxically more
potent from his more intimate style, instrument and recording.
As he explains in his booklet notes, he considers the written-out
lead-in after bar 43 supplied by Mozart for amateurs Ė though
Brautigam plays it -† and substitutes from tr. 9 0:55 to
1:10 a more elaborate and delicate one of his own. His second
episode is alert and from 1:43 starkly dramatic. He adds
another embellished passage, from 2:06 to 2:13 at the pause
just before the end of this in preference to providing another
lead-in at 2:22, the pause before the return of the rondo
theme, where Brautigam does add a 5 second lead-in.†
refer to Mozartís first six piano sonatas belonging together.
This is presumably the cue for recording only three in this
ĎVolume 1í. Yet it makes for a rather ungenerous playing
time for a full price CD these days. I thought this might
be mitigated by an advertisement in the October 2006 Gramophone
which states that with this CD comes a bonus DVD featuring
Levin in discussion on different aspects of Mozart and his
music. But Iím informed by Sony that this bonus is only
available in the United States.
The bonus you
do get is Levinís scholarly booklet notes, among whose many
insights are the stressing of the domestic use yet balletic
poise of Mozartís piano sonatas, their reflection of baroque
performance tradition, the significance of dynamic shading
and the primary impulse of Mozartís music being vocal and
dramatic. All these aspects are vividly illustrated in his
performances which are also thoroughly enjoyable.
always stimulating, this CD is a new listening experience
in Mozart piano sonatas. The actual sound and playing conventions
are more authentically recreated by Levin than ever before.
In terms of interpretation, however, I sometimes prefer
Brautigamís fuller realization of the musicís expressive
potential. To put it another way, Brautigam shows you Beethoven
lurking, Levin looks back more to Scarlatti. And both honour
the distinctive Mozart, but in a different hue.