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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Sonatas: No. 1 in C major, K 279 (1775) [18:31]; No. 2 in F major, K 280 (1775) [18:37]; No. 3 in B flat major, K 281 (1775) [17:29]
Robert Levin (fortepiano)
rec. Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts, 25-27 November 2005. DDD
DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI† 82876 842372 [54:56]

Within seconds 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.

Robert Levin, 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.

Despite being 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.

Levin consistently 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.

The Deutsche 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.

The acoustic 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 timings:

Timings   

   I    II III      tt
Levin 6:42  6:51 4:50 18:31
Brautigam 6:48  8:07 4:45 19:47
Uchida 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.

Uchidaís pianoforte 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 2:52.†

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 comparative timings:

Timings       I    II III      tt
Levin 6:27  7:36 4:28 18:37
Brautigam 6:17  7:52 4:03 18:21

Brautigam is 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 sustained.

Levinís slightly 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 is less.

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.

Lastly Mozartís 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 comparative timings:

Timings       I    II III      tt
Levin 6:21  6:34 4:27 17:29
Brautigam 6:18  7:31 4:16 18:16

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.

Brautigamís 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.†

Levinís notes 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.

Sometimes provocative, 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.

Michael Greenhalgh

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