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The sonata, unplugged

Performing Mozart's works for violin and fortepiano on, well, the violin and fortepiano restores harmony and the costar billing the composer intended.

October 09, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

"MOZART did not compose seriously for clavier and violin," Alfred Einstein wrote more than half a century ago in his wise and still relevant study of Mozart's character and work. But Einstein was speaking only of juvenilia and quickly went on to say that after age 22, Mozart created wonders in the medium.

He produced violin sonatas as a boy, in his early maturity and late in his career. If you are the sort who likes to read biography into music, you can find him reacting to his mother's death, conjugal bliss and lots more. He experiments. He charms. He digs emotionally. Every violinist studies these works. The sonatas have been much recorded. They are not uncommon on recital programs, if nearly always as warmups.

Follow their development and you witness the birth of the modern violin sonata. So it might seem pretty weird that only now, more than two centuries after they were written, are these works finally getting their due.

The problem is that the violin sonatas are not violin sonatas. They are sonatas for keyboard and violin. In the childhood versions, the violin is an afterthought. In the later scores, the instruments strive for equality, which was a great innovation. But even then the violin never dominates.

The modern violin sonata, on the other hand, is all about the violin -- or at least violinists think so. Despite the fact that Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok, Faure, Ives, Janacek, Prokofiev and many other composers of great violin sonatas wrote demanding piano parts, the modern-day violinist nearly always runs the show. The fiddler sells the sonata. And peacock fiddlers like to show feathers.

A related problem is that Mozart didn't write for the piano. He wrote for its ancestor, the fortepiano, which is not as loud as a modern grand. But it blends easily with a gut-stringed period violin, and thus the pianist, no matter how forceful, needn't fret about balance.

As played on souped-up modern instruments, the sonatas have been relegated to minor status, at best lead-ups to Beethoven. And when they are performed by a showy player, they can seem unimportant. The recordings by Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Isaac Stern are to be avoided.

Suddenly, though, there is a spate of Mozart violin sonata recordings on both period and present-day instruments, part of the just-beginning Mozart recording rush that will accompany the celebration of the composer's 250th birthday next year (prepare to be inundated). Over the summer, the beloved Mozart pianist Mitsuko Uchida released a selection of the sonatas with violinist Mark Steinberg on Philips, as did the alluring Baroque music specialist Rachel Podger with fortepianist Gary Cooper, in the first volume of a complete sonata series on Channel Classics. Both sets are stunning achievements that honor, and delight in, the role of the keyboard. Both, moreover, are full of personality.

In addition, there have been a couple of two-CD sets of the sonatas exquisitely played in performance and on period instruments by fortepianist David Breitman and violinist Jean-Francois Rivest.

Timely interpretations

THIS week come three more sets with instruments ancient and new.

Andrew Manze's disc has three virtues. The first is that it has an interesting theme, a concentration on the breakout sonatas Mozart wrote in his 23rd year. The second is the inclusion of a real rarity, a fragment in C major (K. 403) that has two full movements by Mozart and part of a third. The completion is by Maximilian Stadler, who was an abbe, an ethnomusicologist, a buddy of Beethoven and a musical experimenter. He goes off in some interesting directions of his own. Meanwhile, the two movements by Mozart are utterly delicious, music that he wrote just as he married Constance Weber and that he seems to have been too preoccupied to complete.

The third of the Manze CD's virtues is the sheer gusto of the players. Their idea of a Mozartean good time is to get carried away. With their period instruments, they understand that they can make the kind of boisterous big bang that would completely overpower the music on modern instruments. Theirs is an almost symphonic approach. In two upbeat F-major sonatas (K. 376 and K.377), they show off brilliantly.

But then there are Podger and Cooper, whose second volume, like the first, is a wide survey of the sonatas. These period players are more touching, more personal and, in the end, more probing than are Manze and Richard Egarr on fortepiano. The latter are just more fun.

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