MOZART PIANO SONATAS:  FROM THE RIDICULOUS TO THE SUBLIME

The conceptual pairing of Mozart piano sonatas and silent films might at first sight seem bizarre but listen to Glenn Gould whizz through the finale of K279 (a journey that lasts a mere 1:54) and Keystone Cops most readily spring to mind. Here the man who brazenly opined that Mozart died too late rather than too early sends panic among the ranks for a performance that while dextrous in the extreme avoids just about every musical point worth making. Gould’s controversial set of the solo Sonatas and Fantasias is newly reissued on Sony Classical (19439917892, c£17.25).

Switching to the Soviet/Austrian pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja who recorded the sonatas for Warner Classics in 2021 (Warner Classics 9029645782, c£33.00) there’s the unsettling Fantasia in C minor K475 where at 5:19 forceful chords in the bass set to a rattling accompaniment suggest a distressed screen damsel with smudged mascara pleading for her life. Later on, from around 10:32, there are vivid premonitions of Beethoven’s Appassionata. With most pianists you half expect a fiery Beethovenian four-chord onslaught to follow, but not with Leonskaja, whose sense of musical inevitability coincides precisely with Mozart’s own. 

While chiding Gould for wilful extremes there are some aspects of his playing that prove illuminating, the central andante from the A minor Sonata K310 for example where at the movement’s core he cues a haughty accompanying staccato, disdainfully superior in mood but undeniably impressive. Still, it’s Leonskaja who offers you ‘cantabile con espressione’, as marked, playing graced by minutely employed punctuation, much as the first movement of K333 in B flat where you can sense every intake of breath, hear every tiny inflection or bend in the line. If it weren’t a contradiction in terms I’d say ‘less is more’ taken to extremes. Above all Leonskaja’s tone is so beautiful, which in turn aids the effect of her sensitive phrasing. Her timing is impeccable and unless I’ve missed something along the way she offers us all of Mozart’s marked repeats …. and with playing of this quality, they’re without exception welcome.

OK I know we already have the likes of Mitsuko Uchida (Decca), Lili Kraus (Sony Classical), Roland Brautigam (BIS),Peter Donohoe (Somm) and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (Chandos) in this repertoire but even as viewed – and heard – from such interpretative peaks as theirs Leonskaja remains in a class of her own. If you can speak of Mozart’s ‘Yin and Yang’ she has them fully sussed for the cycle’s duration.

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