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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
The Piano Sonatas
CD 1 [73:19]

Sonata no.1 in C K.279 [12:54]
Sonata no.2 in F K.280 [15:23]
Sonata no.3 in B flat K.281 [13:28]
Sonata no.4 in E flat K.282 [12:33]
Sonata no.5 in G K.283 [12:53]
Rondo in D K.485
CD 2 [74:23]

Sonata no.6 in D K.284 [24:35]
Sonata no.7 in C K.309 [17:03]
Sonata no.8 in A minor K.310 [16:57]
Sonata no.9 in D K.311 [15:46]
CD 3 [75:51]

Sonata no.10 in C K.330 [18:26]
Sonata no.11 in A K.331 [20:54]
Sonata no.12 in F K.332 [17:56]
Fantasia in D minor K.397 [04:54]
Sonata no.18 in D K.576 [13:51]
CD 4 [75:25]

Sonata in B flat K.333 [19:58]
Fantasia in C minor K.475 [11:52]
Sonata in C minor K.457 [17:06]
Sonata in C K.545 [08:55]
Sonata in B flat K.570 [17:54]
Lili Kraus (piano)
rec. 1967-1968, location not given
SONY BMG MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT 82876-88808 LC 06868 [4 CDs, timings as above]

 

The companies once known as CBS (later Sony) and RCA are now part of the same household, BMG. They are both delving into their back catalogues for this "Complete Collections" series. However, the habit of competition apparently dies hard. Not so long ago they put out a 5-CD set of the Mozart piano sonatas plus the two fantasias and the two rondos recorded by Alicia de Larrocha for RCA in the early 1990s. This is still available and is illustrated on the back cover of the booklet to the present set. Meanwhile the Sony side of the operation has come up with a cycle on just 4 CDs set down by Lili Kraus for CBS in 1967-8.

I reviewed the de Larrocha set with considerable enthusiasm and it was awarded a "Bargain of the Month" status, though not all critics agreed. "Gramophone" dismissed it with a few lines, confirming the generally lukewarm reception the single discs had been given when they originally appeared. Not long after I found myself dealing with the cycle recorded by Joyce Hatto, mostly in the early 1990s review . This was also on 5 CDs, though containing only the sonatas apart from the C minor fantasia which kept its time-hallowed position before the sonata in that key. My conclusion, after commenting singly on the five discs, was that those who had purchased the de Larrocha cycle could rest content that they had acquired an excellent product, but those still waiting to buy a cycle of Mozart sonatas would on balance do better still with Hatto. Both pianists took unhurried views with the difference that de Larrocha sought out the elements in the earlier sonatas that harked back to Scarlatti or the Bach sons, thereby presenting the cycle as a historical progression, while for Hatto Mozart was truly Mozart and a sublime genius from the first. The differences between the two artists’ approaches hence became less as the cycle reached its conclusion.

I have recently become aware that a certain injustice currently exists. My reviews of the single Hatto discs can be read on the site, but since then the records have not only been brought together in a single box, they have been remastered and re-edited, with the insertion of a few additional takes made by the pianist in the last year of her life. The discs reviewed are therefore not exactly the ones you will now buy. I have been sent the new boxed set and have made this my principal comparison with the present Kraus cycle, but I have also referred back to the original Hatto discs. I will make it my next task to write a review of this new package, noting any differences. Suffice to say here that the changes, insofar as I have detected them, are more the sort of details which concern a self-critical artist. Hatto certainly did not modify her basic approach and the performances remain substantially as I have described them.

So back to Kraus, and younger readers might be wondering who she was. BMG offer no help apart from two photographs and the passing comment that "in the 1950s … she was one of the first to devote her attention to Mozart’s solo piano works, producing a complete recording of the sonatas". Maybe they feel that this sort of semi-historical issue will be bought principally by specialists and connoisseurs who will know all about Lili Kraus, and they could be right. But then for such purchasers the detailed, rather over-earnest, notes on the music by Ruth Seiberts will be a case of coals to Newcastle and they will regret that the generally proficient translator, Clive Williams, knows so little of musical terminology as to perpetrate "3 Sonatas for piano solo […], the first ex C, the next ex A and third ex F". This is a literal transcription of the original German (translation is something different); Mozart means "in" C, A and F. The French translator gets it right. They will also be amused or sorry or hopping mad (according to their temperaments) to see that in the track list BMG have adopted what might be called the BBC syndrome of tarting up the classical product by having it dealt with by someone who knows nothing about it. Thus we get all the tracks of the four discs correctly listed (let us be thankful for small mercies). But instead of putting Mozart’s name at the top, it is left to the small print at the bottom to reveal to us: "All selections composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart". The hapless gentleman is probably still telling his friends, in a bemused fashion, about that strange classical album with no additional arrangements, vocals, percussion, synthesizer, special sound effects or whatever.

Back to Lili Kraus. She was born in Budapest in 1903 or 1905 or 1908, according to which reference book you use. A little surfing in internet reveals that her biographer Steve Roberson opts unequivocally for 1903, no doubt on the strength of due research, and that Kraus herself admitted to one of her pupils in later life that she had changed her birth-date. She was therefore one of a notable generation of musicians – particularly pianists and conductors – who emerged from the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Budapest at a time when the teaching staff included such names as Bartók, Kodály, Szekely, Weiner and Dohnanyi. From Kraus’s generation were the pianists Louis Kentner (1905-1987) and Ilonka Deckers-Küszler (1901-1996; not a household name but revered in teaching circles) and conductors Antál Doráti (1906-1988) and Laszlo Somogyi (1907-1988). Just a little later came pianists Andor Foldes (1913-1992), Annie Fischer (1914-1995) and Livia Rev (b.1916) as well as conductors Georg Solti (1912-1997) and Ferenc Fricsay (1914-1963).

It is interesting that such a galaxy of teaching talent does not appear to have imposed any especially perceptible "house style" on its products. It is also interesting that, though the pianists and conductors named were all born within about ten years of each other, some seem very recent memories, almost contemporaries of ours – I understand Livia Rev still performs sometimes – while others carry the aura of a very distant past. Although Lili Kraus continued to play in public until only a few years before her death in 1986, somehow one feels she belongs to the latter category. My father used to have her Beethoven "Eroica Variations" on Parlophone 78s and retains fond memories of the performance. I see that it was recorded in 1939 and a Pearl transfer of this and other pre-war recordings is available through ArkivMusic – see link on this site if you want to follow up Lili Kraus in a big way. Following her studies in Budapest Kraus went on to study with Artur Schnabel in Berlin and thereafter specialized in the Viennese classics, though not forgetting her earlier teacher Bartók.

A concert tour of Java unwisely undertaken in 1942 led to Kraus’s capture and internment by the Japanese. After the war her career gradually picked up again, principally in the United States where she was also active as a teacher. The internet yields numerous memories of her vivid personality and it may be that an American reader will not agree with my remark that she seems to belong to a very distant past. She recorded quite extensively in the 1950s and 1960s but usually for smaller labels such as Vox, Vanguard and Concert Hall. In 1954 she set down for the Haydn Society what was probably the first complete cycle of Mozart sonatas. It was actually very much a cheek-to-cheek contest with Walter Gieseking, who finished only a little later the first set of all Mozart’s solo piano music – the Kraus recordings included a number of the miscellaneous pieces, but made no attempt at completeness. Nevertheless, the Gieseking approach to Mozart was and remains controversial and the hard-to-get (in the UK) Kraus Haydn Society cycle acquired a considerable cult status. It is now available on Music and Arts and this, too, can be obtained from ArkivMusik, so I hope to be able to compare the two cycles in the not too distant future. A slightly earlier cycle still, by the way, was recorded for the BBC by the late Nina Milkina. Given the BBC’s track record it is probably useless hoping that the original tapes survive. If anyone reading this possesses an off-the-air taping of passable quality it would be nice to think it could one day be issued, since Milkina’s credentials in this repertoire were at least equal to those of Gieseking or Kraus.

Just to clear up a few practical points, Kraus’s later cycle is on 4 CDs as compared with de Larrocha’s and Hatto’s 5 partly because she does not include the composite K533/494 sonata (de Larrocha also adds the A minor Rondo), partly because the playing times are slightly more generous, and especially because her tempi are almost invariably faster. Her second disc, for example, has sonatas 6-9 while Hatto’s second can only accommodate 6-8 – it lasts 66:52 even so. Artists of Kraus’s generation could be fairly cavalier over repeats and I was expecting this to be further factor, but it proves not to be. All three artists agree that first repeats are to be played, including those in slow movements. Not everybody has the patience for this even today. They also agree that big second repeats in sonata-form movements need not be observed and are pragmatic over short second-half repeats in finales – Kraus actually includes one that Hatto omits.

The recording quality is acceptable but not really equal to the best the late 1960s could produce. It is clear, clean and close, a little dry and airless, with the occasional curdling of incipient distortion. The effect is a shade aggressive and may have a bearing on how I hear the performances.

In the first movement of the first sonata Kraus immediately announces herself as an artist of energy and abundant enthusiasm. There’s plenty of kick to it all but after a while it begins to seem a bit unvaried, the vitality concealing a lack of distinction in phrasing and touch. If you turn to Joyce Hatto you are in a different world. It is as though you are no longer looking at the music through a zoom lens but watching it patiently unfold in the distance. Hatto quite clearly felt – and was able to convey the idea in her playing – that Mozart, even when in real life a Cherubino-like adolescent – had from the beginning a contact with something sublime, outside this world. On a purely technical level we may note the way in which the various ornaments – trills, turns and mordents – fit into the musical line at her steady tempo, whereas with Kraus they seem intrusions, proof perhaps that the tempo Mozart imagined was closer to Hatto’s.

Yet it is not only a question of tempo, for in the first movement of the second sonata their tempi are virtually the same, yet Kraus’s ornaments stick out of the musical line like carbuncles whereas Hatto’s sound perfectly natural. It doesn’t exactly help that Kraus regularly starts her trills on the upper note, which I always thought was a baroque practice. By applying this to the pastoral-like Adagio of this same sonata she gives the idea that she is altering the principal theme while Hatto, who begins the trill on the lower note, seems to be decorating it. The opening Adagio of the fourth sonata brings some left-hand-before-right which sounds too slushy for Mozart. All in all, Mozartian grace is singularly lacking and I wondered if her brusque manners and tendency to divide up the music might not have been more appropriate to Haydn’s more wayward, unpredictable personality or to Beethoven’s sheer physicality. From the sonatas on the first disc there seemed to be no contest and it was only the D major Rondo which made me realize that it was not going to be quite so straightforward. There is no Hatto comparison here, but Kraus is much more detailed in her response than de Larrocha.

D major often inspired Mozart to write music of a festive nature and Hatto responds to this, with the result that the two performances of the opening movement of K.284 are more similar than usual – honours about even, I think. Furthermore, I prefer Lili Kraus’s more flowing tempi in the "Rondeau en Polonaise", a difficult movement to make sense of. This sonata is rarely performed, partly on account of this movement and partly because its final Theme and Variations can seem interminable – these performances come in at 17:04 (Hatto) and 15:14. Hatto takes the view that if it is all made as beautiful as possible it will not outstay its welcome. This tilts the scales slightly in her favour for me, but I must say I found some of Kraus’s individual variations very characterful.

The C major sonata, K.309, also offers a genuine alternative to Hatto if your preference is for something more vivacious and gutsy. The A minor is also a very characterful affair, Kraus’s expressive nudges clearly arising from deep familiarity and identification with a piece she must have played hundreds of times. In my review of Hatto’s performance I compared her steady unfolding of the first movement with Klemperer’s similar treatment of the G minor symphony. In the wake of Kraus’s treatment I found myself slightly missing the latter artist’s more overt engagement even while appreciating Hatto’s more objective inner serenity. Two complementary performances, then, which leave you feeling that the one approach necessarily excludes the other. However, the famous Lipatti performance succeeds miraculously in wedding formal objectivity to intense expressivity and whatever decision you make over a complete Mozart cycle you should not be without that extraordinary document.

The clumpy opening chord of K.311 suggests, and the humdrum Andante con espressione confirms, that this is to be one of Kraus’s less pleasing performance.

The third disc is another mixture, with K.330 a very valid alternative to Hatto if you want something a little punchier, and some will prefer Kraus’s more Beethovenian dynamics in the striding – proto-Eroica – passages of K.332’s first movement. The much-loved A major sonata finds her at her least ingratiating, apart from a lively finale, but the remainder of the disc is exceptional.

I don’t know if Kraus made a speciality of pairing the D minor/major Fantasia with Mozart’s last sonata, also in D major, but the music seems to have a very special meaning for her. The rhetorical, rhapsodic elements of the Fantasia suit her down to the ground, and there is a delightful spontaneity in the way she eases into the Sonata. Furthermore, if she lacks Mozartian grace elsewhere, she certainly doesn’t here. Hatto’s remains a superbly poised performance but Kraus’s has an extra speaking quality, above all in the first movement.

The final disc has similar ups and downs. One or two nervous spurts apart, K.333 could be preferred to Hatto if you like a more energetic approach; for myself the timeless tranquillity of Hatto’s Andante cantabile would be the deciding factor. One might have predicted that Kraus would be at her best in the proto-Beethovenian C minor Fantasia and Sonata; it is a full-scale, authoritative and vital reading. Yet Hatto’s more restrained Fantasia seems to illuminate the music from within and ultimately sounds more Mozartian. In the outer movements of the Sonata I’ll have to hand it to Kraus for her panache; as Hatto sees these movements, it is the wistful contrasting themes which lie at the heart of the music. As a result she can seem a little constrained in the forte passages. On the other hand, while Kraus sings out the Adagio like a grand operatic aria, very effectively in its way, Hatto gives one of her most inward interpretations. Seemingly simple, she evokes an other-worldly quality which is deeply affecting. For this I would have to prefer her overall, though I shall return to Kraus for her outer movements.

If the "simple" C major sonata continued as well from Kraus as it begins – and the same could be said of the Andante – it would be a very winning performance. Unfortunately she adds a few impatient, aggressive touches, while Hatto is a miracle of poised serenity. Children – including grown-up ones – studying this much abused sonata while find a wonderful example in Hatto’s performance.

It would be nice to say that K.570, widely considered Mozart’s greatest piano sonata, summed up the best of each artist’s approach. Unfortunately Kraus is brusque and snatched, with a heavy-handed Adagio while Hatto is a miracle of Olympian grace.

In conclusion, it may be said that Hatto’s cycle is unfailingly illuminated by those spiritual qualities which I believe are most needed in our desperately material age. Maybe you don’t agree and would rather have performances of an earthier vitality. But the problem remains that, while Hatto assuredly gives the finest possible performances of her particular point of view, this can only intermittently be said of Kraus. I couldn’t honestly recommend this set as the sole version in your library. However, in view of its modest price, those who have Hatto (or de Larrocha) might consider it a useful supplement, offering a very different view and propounding it magnificently for about half the time.

Christopher Howell

see also review of the Joyce Hatto cycle

 

 



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