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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Sonatas (complete) (c.1775-1789)
CD 1
No.1 in C major KV279 [11:59]; No.2 in F major KV280 [11:11]; No.3 in B flat major KV281 [13:25]; No.4 in E flat major KV282 [12:16]; No.5 in G major KV283 10:08]
CD 2
No.6 in D major [25:14]; No.7 in C major KV309 [18:38]; No.9 in A minor KV310 [14:46]; Rondo in D major KV485 [4:59]
CD 3
No.8 in D major KV311 [15:48]; No.10 in C major KV330 [15:19]; No.11 in A major KV331 [25:27]; Rondo in A minor KV511 [9:36]
CD 4
No.12 in F major KV332 [16:25]; No.13 in B flat major KV333 [19:08]; Fantasia in C minor KV475 [11:50]; Sonata No.14 in C minor KV457 [18:33]
CD 5
No 15 in F major KV533 [20:11]; No.16 in C major KV545 [9:07]; No.17 in B flat major KV570 15:20]; No.18 in D major KV576 [15:59]; Fantasia in D minor KV397 [5:58]
Maria-João Pires (piano)
rec. Lino Hall, Tokyo, January – February 1974
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 92733/1-5 [5 CDs: 59:09 + 63:37 + 66:10 + 65:56 + 66:35]


Experience Classicsonline

: Maria-João Pires, Deutsche Grammophon 4775200; rec. Hamburg 1989-93

If you need proof that Wolfgang Amadeus gathered notes that fell from Heaven look beyond his Church music to these instrumental works. There is no shortage of Mozart’s piano sonatas on CD but there is only one Maria-João Pires; or rather, there are two.

In 1990, as DG began to release its cycle, Denon (Nippon Columbia) re-issued these 1974 recordings at a budget price, long deleted until now. Whereas DG is very expensive, Brilliant Classics publish these five CDs at super-budget price level yet the presentation, box, and booklet are top quality.

Maria-João was born in Lisbon, Portugal in 1944. It is a remarkable thing that genius often blossoms in a person’s thirtieth year. The Denon and DG series are separated by years during which digital technology improved immensely and by a gap in her career which I know only as the illness of the artist. Reading the DG biography it seems her musical life began when she was signed by them; however, in the early seventies Erato, a label with impeccable taste and a great back-catalogue now in the Warner group, recorded her. For me her Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart sonatas and concertos are “personal”, sublime, pure, exalted, naïve. As she once said in a master-class, the score is not the music; meaning, I believe, that if it were then it would be best played by a computer. In my home an international pianist who heard her Bach on an out-of-print CD became quite determined to acquire a copy or deprive me of mine.

Pires belongs to the elite whose technique is sufficiently brilliant to become irrelevant: her choices of tempi, phrasing, dynamics, are determined by her unerring instinct; and that is a good phrase to define her artistry. She is no metrical time-beater; for her the score is nothing more than the clues to the composer’s sound. This is not the imposition of her own will - quite the contrary, unless you believe that these composers were limited to unemotional “metrical” constraints. This “mathematical formula” view is arguably most applicable, if at all, to Bach; until you hear her play Bach. Therefore, in my estimation, she is one of the greatest pianists of all time and a one-off. She plays with more than mind, but with body and soul. She is arguably at her best with people, which means concertos rather than sonatas and concerts rather than studio recordings.

OK, so I peeked at The Gramophone review of the 1974 Denon recordings on their 1990 reissue and it said almost the opposite of what follows here. It shows just how subjective music reviewing is, unless, as I believe, one of us must be absolutely wrong. In that case music reviewing is not so much subjective, but unreliable. If I am wrong, you waste £15; if I am right you escape briefly from the madness of the world.

It appears, to my surprise, that Brilliant Classics have not re-mastered the recordings. They sound exactly the same as the Denon CDs. Nippon Columbia made these PCM recordings almost a full decade before Sony/Philips launched CD yet they suffer none of the thin hard sound that audiophiles condemned in the first Sony/Philips DDD recordings ten years later. Testing the theory that today’s Hi-Fi CD players have solved the problem proved partially correct but played on an old CD player I had to hand, the 1990 Denon discs sounded good. To my surprise, after fifteen years of digital progress, the DG did not win points for superior sound engineering.

Now to the essence of this critique: the performance of the music. Pires’s view of the piano sonatas has not changed radically but for Denon there is an innocence that perfectly reflects the music. If you want more dynamics, phrasing, and such artistic virtuosity consider DG, because arguably her technique has matured but I do not like it. Try a lollipop, the famous Sonata No.11 in A major “Alla Turca”. Whilst the later recordings dazzle the mind these originals melt the heart. Even if the huge price advantage were reversed I would still choose this “fresh reissue”. It is more quintessentially Mozart and more Pires.

Jack Lawson


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