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Sound samples

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
The Piano Sonatas
see end of review for listing
Daniel-Ben Pienaar (piano)
rec. Dukes Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London, August 2008 and September 2009. DDD
AVIE AV2209 [5 CDs: 288:17]

Experience Classicsonline

As professor at the Royal Academy of Music, it is logical that South African-born Daniel-Ben Pienaar’s cycle of Mozart’s piano sonatas should have been recorded in The Duke’s Hall, the main concert hall of that noble institute. Hearing this acoustic again has me dripping with nostalgia. The place has been renovated since I was a student there in the 1980s, but I have the hall’s chameleon acoustic written into my musical reference DNA and hearing this has me wondering why it doesn’t appear more often as a professional recording venue. By no means too vast to swamp a solo recital or chamber music concert in excessive resonance, it also seemed large-scale enough to house vast forces, and I remember radio broadcasts from the time we performed some of Messiaen’s most monumental works sounding as good as from any similarly sized concert hall. Perhaps they’ve solved the traffic noise problem from Marylebone Road, or isolated the place from vibrations coming from passing trains on the Bakerloo underground line, or perhaps these Mozart recordings were indeed lonely nocturnal sessions. Either way, the recordings sound very good indeed, made under the benign bronze gaze of Sir Henry Wood’s bust, present at all times except when casting his alloy aura over the Proms concert season in the altogether different acoustic of the Albert Hall. 

I’ve been living with Daniel-Ben Pienaar’s Mozart for a while now, and have been enjoying it greatly. His approach is brisk and unsentimental, with an overall timing for the entire set of 4:48:18, which tells something of the story against my main reference, that of Mitsuko Uchida on Philips which comes in at 5:25:10. An observation - or lack of observation of repeats in the second section of movements will also play a role in these differences, so if this is something which bothers you then this may be a consideration. Pienaar’s timings are more comparable with those of Ronald Brautigam on his BIS cycle played on a historical fortepiano, and even then he is swifter more often than not. This is not to say that his playing is brusque or insensitive, but taking perhaps the most famous of Mozart’s piano sonata movements as an example, the opening Allegro of the Sonata No. 16 K545 ‘Für Änfänger’, he drives forward at a considerable pace, making the music more exciting than merely charming, introducing drama into the ornamented lines and the transitional modulations. Uchida keeps the music-box lightness of the piece more intact, beautifully handled, but with a less daring emotional range. Pienaar also gives the impression of ‘speeding-up’ just a little as the music progresses. This is a side-effect of a rubato which takes, and then delays the giving back of musical time. This can be heard in the second movement of the same sonata, the delicate Andante. The tempo is stable, but with a little more air given to the opening bars and a more onward moving feel to the following phrases there is a sense of ‘leaning forward’ just a little more than one might expect. This is less a criticism than an observation. Each time I thought I might be catching Pienaar stretching his tempi a little too much for good taste I found myself corrected on listening properly. In this same movement Uchida now sounds slow and pedestrian by comparison, still very beautiful, but providing us more with the chocolate box stereotype of Mozart, rather than drawing out the subtle turbulence in the music - playing it as we now might imagine Mozart might have played it himself, challenging his audiences and perhaps even shocking them. Just listen to what Pienaar does with the return to the home key at 4:05, holding a little extra suspension of the leading note and giving us a frisson of bi-tonality which would have had even Bartók looking up from his Népszava.
This is just one sonata, and a few small examples, but this set is full of this kind of interest. Mozart’s piano sonatas have a reputation for a certain kind of ‘easiness’; the kind which has music teachers putting them in front of their students so that they can play some ‘real’ music early on. This is all well and good, but it takes someone like Daniel-Ben Pienaar to come along and show us that there is a good deal more to be discovered. Many sets of this kind are presented chronologically, but Pienaar makes a particular virtue of the sonata’s traversal of Mozart’s creative lifetime, and most of the discs are titled along the lines of period and location for each subset. He also writes his own intelligent and informative booklet notes, tackling the subject of playing 18th century music on what is essentially a 19th or even 20th century instrument, and taking an approachable look behind the musical notes with some historical context and brief analysis.
There are numerous complete cycles of Mozart’s piano sonatas, and of those I’ve had at one time or another that with Lili Kraus has alas gone by the wayside. This is a nice recording and vintage performance, but I never really felt much ‘connection’ with her playing of the pieces. I’ve kept the faith with Ronald Brautigam’s excellent fortepiano set on the BIS label, but am reluctant to make too many comparisons due to the differing character of the instruments used. A review of my modern instrument reference with Mitsuku Uchida on Philips can be found here. I still very much admire her solo Mozart playing, but each time I return to one of these pieces after hearing Daniel-Ben Pienaar she seems entirely blown out of the water. You may not always want high drama in your Mozart, but when it comes to something like the Fantasie K475 in C minor it’s like discovering an entirely new piece. Uchida is quiet and intimate where Pienaar is mysterious and full of surprises in the opening minutes, finding little accents and harmonic emphases and bringing little Mozart face to face with a rather startled looking Beethoven. He isn’t shy of the lyrical elements in this and the other pieces, but the undercurrent is more one of narrative than of glimmering beauty - if you open Pienaar’s chocolate box your selection won’t always be creamy and sweetly fragrant. Take those tremuli in the right hand where the music takes off at 4:21. Pienaar gives them full weight: the mechanics of a scene-change at the opera at full tilt into the stormy sea, where Uchida seems almost more apologetic, pointing our attention to the melodramatic two-note bass line but only too glad to return to safer waters as soon as possible.
I could go on and on with comparisons of one sort or another, but the plain truth is I think Daniel-Ben Pienaar’s Mozart piano sonatas could entirely revolutionise the way you experience these pieces, and indeed Mozart in general. There is so much about Mozart that we think we know; impressions and perceptions more often than not gained from the tourist sales-brochure idea most people will give you if asked on the street. Historical truth can teach us more, and there is a deal more information around for those who are willing to make just a little more effort. What Daniel-Ben Pienaar teaches us is that there is a good deal more mud and substance to Mozart’s piano sonatas than most of us suspected, and as a result he has given us a cycle which will make it tough to return to old favourites. As a final reference I brought out one of my Decca remnants, another superb Mozart exponent Andras Schiff. His Andante grazioso opening to the Sonata No. 11 K331 ‘Alla Turca’ is the one most likely to bring tears to my eyes if the mood takes, and even though Pienaar is alive to the music’s simple perfection his onward momentum does rob the music a little of the kind of innocent charm which makes it so moving. Schiff’s playing floats on a different kind of lightness to Uchida’s and will always retain its appeal to me, though I relish Pienaar’s sense of lively and percussive fun in the ‘Turkish’ aspects of the last movement in this sonata. The very last work, the Sonata No. 18 K576 in D major is played masterfully by Schiff, but with Pienaar’s more earthy grounding we are given a shot of energy and joyous street bustle in the opening Allegro and final Allegretto to go along with the transparent delicacy which is essential to the work, and which both pianists deliver marvellously. The central Adagio is another litmus indicator, and Pienaar comes up trumps with beautifully described lines and undulations, the conversational element of the music brought forward without taking away from Mozart’s crystalline magic.
I have to say I am surprised and delighted by this cycle of Mozart’s piano sonatas: surprised by the amount of substance and sheer musical grit I’ve missed in so many other performances, and delighted to discover so much more Mozart I had previously felt carried less musical muscle than, say, the piano concertos. Pienaar knows how to point a wise finger to the heart of each movement of each sonata, highlighting the crucial highlight you just know had to be the moment which made Mozart smile to himself as he played and sketched. Pienaar throws away the velvet-lined glass-covered treasure chest of musical jewels to which we’ve been used, and introduces us to a Mozart who tickles us under the chin with a roll of manuscript paper before sitting down and challenging us to a duel of wits we know we can’t win. Was that a whiff of wet ink you caught just then …? 
Dominy Clements
CD 1 [57:50] 
Sonata No. 1 K279 in C major (1775) [11:55]
Sonata No. 2 K280 in F major (1775) [12:51]
Sonata No. 3 K281 in B flat major (1775) [11:22]
Sonata No. 4 K282 in E flat major (1775) [11:32]
Sonata No. 5 K283 in G major (1775) [10:10]
CD 2 [65:46]
Sonata No. 6 K284 ‘Dürnitz’ in D major (1775) [24:00]
Sonata No. 7 K309 in C major (1777) [14:55]
Sonata No. 8 K311 in D major (1777) [13:54]
Sonata No. 9 K310 in A minor (1778) [12:55]
CD 3 [74:05]
Sonata No. 10 K330 in C major (1783) [17:46]
Sonata No. 11 K331 ‘Alla Turca’ in A major (1783) [21:44]
Sonata No. 12 K332 in F major (1783) [16:03]
Sonata No. 13 K333 in B flat major (1783) [18:29]
CD 4 [49:48]
Fantasie K475 in C minor (1785) [11:00]
Sonata No. 14 K457 in C minor (1784) [17:04]
Sonata No. 15 K533/494 in F major (1786/88) [21:42]
CD 5 [40:49]
Sonata No. 16 K545 ‘Für Änfänger’ in C major (1788) [9:57]
Sonata No. 17 K570 in B flat major (1789) [16:45]
Sonata No. 18 K576 in D major (1789) [14:05]



























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