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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Late Sonatas
CD 1
Piano Sonatas in A, K.331 [25:25], F, K.332 [19:53], C, K.545 [12:53]
CD 2
Piano Sonatas in B flat, K.333 [25:52], B flat, K.570 [19:12], D, K.576 [15:12]
Zeynep Ucbasaran (piano)
rec. March 2008, Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall, Santa Barbara, California
[2 CDs: 58:11, 60:16]
Experience Classicsonline

As I remarked when discussing the companion volume of early sonatas, Zeynep Ucbasaran has already recorded two CDs of Mozart. The first had the Sonatas K.330 and K.457 plus the C minor and D minor Fantasias and the Duport Variations (see review). The second had the Sonatas K.533/494, K.282 and K.284 (see review). We now have a pair of two-CD packs: the aforesaid “Early Sonatas” and this one of “Late Sonatas”, meaning slightly haphazard combinations – if you don’t buy the whole cycle – of the earlier and later sonatas not recorded previously. Ucbasaran’s cycle comes on six CDs rather than the more usual five – the brisk and energetic Lili Kraus manages with only four – and, of the five-CD rivals, De Larrocha for instance also includes the two Fantasias plus the two Rondos. You get more repeats from Ucbasaran, though – but still not all of them if that means a whole lot to you. Without wasting time on the mathematics, maybe it wouldn’t have fitted onto 6 CDs anyway. On the strength of the present album, even more than the “Early Sonatas”, I’d sooner hear Ucbasaran either way.

The much-loved theme of the variations movement that opens K.331 is unfolded warmly and gently. The variations themselves are beautifully characterized with only minimal shifts of tempo between each other. The “Adagio” variation is deeply felt at a still-flowing tempo, but the final “Allegro” is somewhat leisurely, not quite the explosion of joy it can sometimes be. However, I’ll return to this in a moment. The “Menuetto” is excellently poised  at a tempo that easily accommodates the Trio. The ubiquitous “Rondo alla Turca”, though buoyant and well pointed, seems to insist over-deliberately that the marking is only “Allegretto”. A tad faster might have made it a bit more fun.

However, thinking about this performance afterwards, it strikes me that Ucbasaran has presented the entire Sonata at a practically uniform pulse. Trying to verify this was a cheerless task, since it seems unkind to set a metronome ticking to somebody’s real live playing, and the metronome soon showed that she breathes the music and is flexible round the corners as an artist should be. Very broadly, though, the basic pulse of each new tempo – whether quavers, crotchets or whatever – remains within the range of 120-138.

No composer of classical times – as far as I know – ever theorized that the movements of a classical sonata or symphony should be related to a single pulse. However, a good deal of ink went into this theory in the earlier 20th century, from Schenker in particular. It was taken seriously by a number of artists: Leonard Bernstein, for example, spoke of the mathematical relationships between the tempi à propos his recordings of Beethoven’s Symphonies and “Fidelio”. One of my own former teachers, Else Cross, an Austrian who had known Webern, insisted on an exact relationship between, for example, the two tempi of the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata op.27/1. In the UK generally this theory had little impact, principally because most college students in the mid 20th century had Tovey’s edition of the Beethoven Sonatas impressed on them as their Bible, and Tovey vociferously rubbished the theory whenever he could.

Obviously, I cannot know if Ucbasaran has deliberately applied this theory to her performances, though her notes show that she reads widely about the music she plays. It is perfectly possible that she has arrived at these results through an intuitive sense of continuity. She shows this, too, in the minimal pauses between movements, as though, for her, the Sonata is a single movement in several related sections. I haven’t tested whether she finds a single underlying pulse in the other Sonatas, but I think this could account for one or two other slowish finales, K.332 for example. My own experience of this has been that, looking for an underlying pulse can help to find the right tempi in classical sonatas about 66% of the time, but then comes a movement that  just won’t fit. The theory is not merely an empirical one. In the renaissance period single movements – in a Mass, for example, or a multi-section instrumental toccata – were certainly related to a single pulse, the “Tactus”. So the idea is that composers retained – retain? – a subconscious memory of this.

But to get back to the record in hand … A strong performance of the first movement of K.332, which Ucbasaran rightly describes in her notes as “orchestral sounding”. The “Adagio” is beautifully shaped – her slow movements are the heart of all her performances – followed by a finale which, though strong and forthright, could have had just that little more “go” to it.

The “easy” C major Sonata K.545 shows Ucbasaran at her best. By giving all repeats in the first two movements – the finale has none – and by adopting an unhurried approach, she gives the work an increased stature without ever labouring the point. And if her finale is again on the slow side, it has such a delightful lilt that I wouldn’t have it otherwise.

Writing of the “Early Sonatas” volume, I concluded that “if you want to hear Mozart on a modern Steinway in performances that allow the music to speak without particular interference between you and the composer, but without being prim or academic, you should be well pleased with these two CDs”. Thus far I would say the present volume confirms that judgement. That is, while I personally find the sort of “insights” with which a Brendel smothers this music irritating, especially on disc, I realize that some people expect a bit more titillation from the performer.

I get the idea Ucbasaran has a special affection for K.333. Without being in any way eccentric, she points the music just that little bit more – leaning on a chord here, turning a phrase flexibly there. I would say she has found the ideal happy medium – not too many personal touches to offend those who want their Mozart straight but enough for those who want an “interpreter”. This is Mozart playing at the highest level. As further evidence of her special feeling for this Sonata she gives both repeats in the “Andante cantabile”, stretching it to 11:37. For me, at least, it was not too long.

Equally fine is K.570, probably the greatest Sonata of the cycle. No quarrel, by the way, with the tempi chosen for the finales of the three Sonatas on CD 2. Some have felt the D major Sonata K.576, like the “Coronation” Concerto in the same key, to be more brilliant than profound. Perhaps as a reaction against this, Ucbasaran is a little deliberate in the first movement, giving it strength and purpose but maybe diminishing the brilliance which is surely one of its essential components. A beautiful slow movement and a finale that combines grace with power. Notable are the steely left-hand triplets, without recourse to the brittle staccato applied here by Ingrid Haebler.

The extraordinarily high level achieved in K.333 and K.570 leave me thinking that the package as a whole, excellent as it is, could have been better still. All the same, Ucbasaran’s progress from the slightly timid beginnings of her first Liszt album has been rewarding to follow and I look forward to her next project.

Christopher Howell 



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