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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Fantasia in D, K397 (1787) [6:12]
Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major (Alla Turca), K331 (1783) [27:16]
Piano Sonata No. 12 in F major, K332 (1788) [22:47] Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Piano Sonata in F Op. 2, No.1 (1795) [22:42]
Thomas Leininger (fortepiano)
rec. 2018, Von Kuster Hall, Western University, Canada TALBOT RECORDS TR1901 [78:14]
This recital of fairly familiar piano works has the “novelty” of being performed on a fortepiano. It’s an instrument made by R. J. Reiner (Freeport, Maine) after Anton Walter (1752-1826). Grove describes Walter as "the most famous Viennese piano maker of his time". Here it’s tuned at 430 Hz; the modern piano is usually set at A440, the note A above middle C (261.626 Hz). This is fine, lacking the “bar piano” sound that we sometimes get. There’s something very refreshing about hearing this approach and one can always return to the likes of Barenboim, Brendel and Uchida for the modern sound. I also greatly enjoyed Leon McCawley on Avie. The notes (in German and English) are very brief and extraordinarily have no comments about the actual music. They do say Thomas Leininger’s approach to performing late eighteenth-century fortepiano music by Mozart and Beethoven is rooted in the playing styles of the time. He liberates himself from the written page to embrace a powerful form of musical oratory laying the foundation for an evocative performing style. Leininger also freely improvises a prelude before each of the three sonatas. These ‘preludes’ will be referred to when we come to the three sonatas.
Thomas Leininger begins with a straightforward performance of the Mozart Fantasia and the ear soon adjusts to a different soundscape. The work was incomplete at the time of Mozart’s death but completed, it is believed, by August Eberhard Müller (1767-1817). It remains a popular piece, particularly as an encore. It was used as the basis for the first movement of a String Quartet by Gerhard Präsent (born 21 June 1957).
The recital continues with the much loved Alla Turca Sonata. The first movement was the source from which Max Reger constructed his orchestral “Variations and Fugue” (1914). I was slightly taken aback at the start before I realised that Leininger begins with Muzio Clementi’s Preludio II alla Mozart (Mozart Characteristics, 1787). The performance of the Sonata is certainly a revelation and I found it very refreshing. The notes state that “Thomas’s oratorical sensibilities extend to many practices typical of late eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century performers – flexibility of rhythm and tempo, ornamental variations, short cadenzas, dislocation between the hands, an individual character for each section of the music and frequent use of the moderato lever.” This seems fine to me as we know from contemporary reports that Mozart would frequently improvise at the keyboard and if one is using a “contemporary” instrument then it would seem acceptable to play in that manner. This piece is much loved by professionals and amateurs at home. Leininger is certainly a fine advocate for this “period” approach. The particular standout is the bouncing final movement; the Turkish March itself. There are some improvisations on the way to the conclusion, which seems to have associations with his “Die Entführung aus dem Serail “K382. I enjoyed it greatly.
The main competitor in the field of Mozart on the fortepiano comes from Ronald Brautigam Bis and in March 2001 Simon Foster reviewed the 6 CD set of the sonatas and associated fantasias. Simon makes a very pertinent point concerning the popularity (or lack) of these sonatas compared to other works and sonatas by other composers. He feels, and I agree, that Mozart did not choose instantly attractive melodies in these works as he did in the symphonies and operas. They score heavily in terms of charm and the later works have considerable depth of expression. An exception is clearly K331, both in its variations and its vigorous march. I fear though that this is not the case with K332. It is very pleasant and I’m sure satisfying to play but my attention did wane after a while. I also feel that Leininger is not as strong a player in these works as Brautigam. With the latter player, I feel that I’m getting the spirit of Mozart, whereas there’s too much individual point-making with Leininger.
After what I feel is an unnecessary prelude, inspired by both Clementi and Czerny, Leininger launches into Beethoven’s first sonata, composed when he was 25 and undoubtedly influenced by Haydn. The first movement seems too idiosyncratic; almost shades of Glenn Gould and isn’t to my taste. The subsequent movements go better, particularly in the finale and I warm to the special timbre of the fortepiano which, unsurprisingly, has some hint of the harpsichord. There’s no doubting Leininger’s prowess but I will turn to others when wanting to listen to this sonata, which despite being an early composition has many of the qualities that Beethoven developed later on. I’ll refrain from listing comparative recordings, except to mention Daniel Barenboim’s excellent late 1960s set, now on Warner at about £25 which I’ve loved since first hearing parts of it over forty years ago. There are also recordings by Ronald Brautigam, some of which have been reviewed on MusicWeb International.
This is a mixed success although I’m very pleased to hear these familiar works in a different manner. K331 and the Fantasia are very successful but I have doubts about the other two.