Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1971)
Sonata in D major, K. 448 (375a) (1781) [24:50]
Sonata in F major, K.497 (1786) [27:47]
Sonata in C major, K.521 (1787) [24:07]
Marie and Veronica Kuijken (pianoforte)
rec. 14-16 December 2009, Galaxy Studios, Mol, Belgium
This recording has been made by the sisters Marie and Veronica Kuijken, daughters of well known early music specialist and conductor Sigiswald Kuijken. This pair have been playing four-hands piano music since 1989 and clearly have a very close musical relationship. Indeed, the players mention the added proximity musicians have to each other when performing on the narrower keyboard of an early pianoforte rather than a modern instrument: “If you can’t stand each other, it’s better that you don’t play this music on a historical instrument”.
Much more frequently performed and recorded on a modern grand piano, comparisons pretty much go out of the window when seeking to evaluate a recording like this. I won’t for instance be referring to the set of complete 4 hands piano works played by Misha and Cipa Dichter, which Evan Dickerson liked but about which I wasn’t so keen. There is a promising sounding fortepiano recording which includes these works amongst the complete piano music of Mozart on the Brilliant Classics label with Bart van Oort and Ursula Dütschler which I don’t know. Having regularly helped move the collection of instruments at the Royal Conservatoire - something which has to be done for each concert - and having therefore heard Bart van Oort’s students play a variety of repertoire I suppose I must have had more exposure to this musical environment than some. In short, I feel qualified to declare this as a particularly fine release. 
It seems a bit perverse to put the potentially richer sounding two piano K448 at the beginning of the programme, but in fact the sonic texture contrasts less than you might imagine, and this chronological ordering works well. The classical pianoforte has a less sophisticated hammer action than the modern instrument, and wood frame which means the strings are at a lower tension. The upshot is reduced dynamic range, less sustaining power and a different palette of colours to the piano you are more likely to be used to. The advantage of these instruments, copies of pianofortes from 1788 by Johann Andreas Stein, is that we hear Mozart’s music as he would have heard it in his day. He is known to have admired Stein’s instruments from a letter to his father Leopold, and so this is a way of stepping into the musical time machine and re-discovering the candle-lit sounds of a bygone age.
This recording ably conveys the subtleties of the pianoforte. Slightly more distant in balance but without the extra resonance of Ronald Brautigam’s BIS solo recordings, the sound is eminently listenable in both stereo and SACD surround, though with the latter allowing the ‘loudness’ of the instruments and the way they fill the acoustic to spread and sound that much more natural and convincing. I am a huge fan of the two-piano Sonata in D major, K448, and while this recording won’t dislodge my favourites, of which Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu on Sony are at the top of the heap, I will cherish this glimpse of the ‘real’ Mozart sound. The first two movements are nicely performed, the opening Allegro con spirito with plenty of bounce and operatic verve, the central Andante as smoothly lyrical as one might expect - i.e., not quite as much as with modern grands, but by no means lumpy either. The final Molto allegro might have been a tad swifter, having the feel more of a hard-driven andante and reducing interest in the thematic repetitions, but still with plenty of stunning moments and contrasts of mood.
The Sonata in F major K497 is if anything even more remarkable in terms of its compositional content, and the surprises which leap out from the Adagio introduction of the first movement take on a new life in this content. Again, the Allegro di molto is perhaps a little reserved in tempo, but in this case I prefer musical sensitivity and accuracy to headlong pace and risky excitement. The Kuijken sisters mention that “the instrument dictates [] what can and cannot be done”, and I bow to their experience in choices of tempo. I can imagine that over-pushed speeds would sound chaotic and clattery, so I appreciate the sense of detail and attention to inner voices that we are treated to here. The substantial central Andante is a fine bit of music, and the musical conversation between the parts is portrayed with wit and charm. That independence of the two parts is continued in the final Allegro, and it is fascinating to hear the second part growling away in the lower range of the instrument - surely something Mozart must have relished greatly as he exploits it extensively in this case.
Written one year after K497, the Sonata in C major, K521 was composed for a gifted student, Franziska von Jacquin. With this in mind, the virtuoso passagework and equality of demands in each part are hardly surprising, the booklet notes describing this as a “competitive relationship”. The central Andante is more elegant and gently imposing than lyrically expressive, but is filled with lovely touches which are highlit by the contrasts in timbre with the pianoforte. The music-box qualities of the main theme in the final Allegretto might have been portrayed with a little more gentleness, but the dramatic contrasts in the development sections dig deeply and provide enough counterweight.
The sound of the early pianoforte is not for everyone, but those inquisitive enough to want an impression of this marvellous music played on instruments copied from those Mozart would have played are in for a treat with this disc. The synergy of the Kuijken sisters is as close as you could wish for, and their playing is full of stylish élan and richness of character. Add this through a state of the art recording and we’re onto a winner.
Dominy Clements
Another winner from Challenge Classics.