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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Complete Piano Sonatas Volume 1
Piano Sonata No. 12 in F major, K. 332 (1783) [17:42]
Piano Sonata No. 3 in B-flat major, K. 281 (1775) [14:08]
Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, ‘Alla turca’ K. 331 (c. 1783) [22:11]
Piano Sonata No. 17 in B-flat major, K. 570 (1789) [16:35]
Jean Muller (piano)
rec. 2016/17, Grand Auditorium, Conservatoire de la Ville de Luxembourg

On Hänssler Classic pianist Jean Muller has released the first volume in his projected cycle of the complete Mozart piano sonatas. Established complete cycles such as those by Mitsuko Uchida, Daniel Barenboim, András Schiff and Maria Joâo Pires each take five CDs. Luxembourg-born Muller is professor of piano at the Conservatoire de la Ville de Luxembourg where he chose to record this release in the Grand Auditorium.

Mozart wrote his first piano sonata, in 1774, in C major, K. 279 when he was eighteen. From the list I’ve seen, in his short life he went on to compose eighteen such sonatas over a fifteen-year period. All except two, No. 8 in A minor and No. 14 in C minor are major key works. (There is also a piano sonata in F major, K. 547a, sometimes titled No. 19, that was published posthumously in 1799 and is said to be a combination of movements taken from other compositions). These are polished works and each sonata can be imagined as a glimpse into the composer’s character but although inventive these aren’t works that progressively stretch boundaries beyond breaking point. I recall a renowned British concert pianist saying to me some years ago that on the face of it these sonatas appear easy to play yet are extremely difficult to perform well. I have heard sound clips by Robert Levin on the actual Anton Walter fortepiano (c. 1782, Vienna) which Mozart used for both composition and performance from 1785 until his death in 1791. Like many others I have wondered what Mozart would have made of a modern instrument and here Jean Muller is playing a Steinway Model D.

From 1775, the Piano Sonata No. 3 in B-flat major, K. 281 was composed during Mozart’s stay in Munich. An early work, the eighteen-year-old Mozart was still under the influence of the late-Baroque and early Classical eras. Wikipedia makes the claim that the score is “one of the most virtuosic pieces Mozart ever wrote”. It is the Finale marked Rondeau - Allegro that makes the biggest impression on me, as Muller aptly responds to the humour, with playing that feels very natural. The Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K. 331 was written around 1783. What is notable here is the thirteen-minute long opening movement marked Andante grazioso in theme and variations form. Commonly known as the ‘Turkish Rondo’ or ‘Turkish March’ the Finale marked Alla turka is one of Mozart’s most popular stand-alone pieces. This is a marvellous sonata and its popularity is deserved. Muller’s captivating playing of the opening movement is memorable (Andante grazioso), the Menuetto is so light on its feet and I find the joie de vivre afforded to the Finale totally engaging.

Thought to have been completed in 1783, the Piano Sonata No. 12 in F major, K. 332 is a companion piece to K. 330 and K. 331. In the notes Muller compares the Adagio to an operatic aria and revels in the brisk Finale, a virtuosic display piece. Here I especially enjoy Muller’s sense of spontaneity and urgency afforded to the opening movement Allegro and the tenderness of the Adagio sends a shiver down the spine. From the thirty-three-year old Mozart, the Piano Sonata No. 17 in B-flat major, K. 570 is dated 1789, a product of his late Viennese period. Muller contends that the Finale: Rondo foreshadows the satire of Prokofiev. There is a pleasing sensitivity in Muller’s playing of the opening movement Allegro with a strict and reserved feeling given to the central Adagio. Finest of all in the Finale: Allegretto is Muller’s spirit and buoyancy creating such an all-round joyous feel.

Throughout these four sonatas one feels that Muller has embarked on a labour of love, playing with unquestionable style and assurance in performances that communicate freshness. Standing out strongly, too, is Muller’s commendably judged phrasing and tempi while he thankfully sidesteps any temptation to gild the lily. Muller is well served by the satisfyingly sound quality. Muller himself has written the booklet essay which is both interesting and pleasingly informative.

Inevitably any recording of Mozart piano sonatas has to bear comparison with Mitsuko Uchida’s award-winning complete set (on 5 CDs), recorded in 1983-87 at the Henry Wood Hall, London for Philips. For my taste Uchida’s performances are justly acclaimed, demonstrating her gift for communicating additional nuance, colours and unearthing other marvels in the scores.

A rewarding album from Jean Muller splendidly played and recorded which bodes well for subsequent volumes in the cycle on Hänssler Classic.

Michael Cookson

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