She may long have operated primarily within the Austro-German tradition, but Maria João Pires has few equals when it comes to that axis which extends from Bach to Brahms, and this recital of Mozart and Schubert reinforced this point in no uncertain terms.
A first half consisting of temporally adjacent Piano Sonatas by Mozart might have risked stylistic uniformity, but that was never the case here. With Pires, that in F-major emerges as playful though never flippant; the opening Allegro revelled in unexpected tonal sideslips, while the Adagio transmuted its decorative surface into music of a teasing subtlety, before the Finale increased the capriciousness as this progressed from the breeziness of its main theme to the pensive understatement of its closing bars – Mozart’s tribute to J. C. Bach made manifest.
Although the B-flat example is on a similar scale, its wider expressive range ensures this is a Sonata intended to impress a playing public rather than an informed few. Thus, the opening Allegro lacked for nothing in terms of virtuosity, even if it was the Andante – its dissonance no less acute for being so fluid – that responded most fully to Pires’s insights. Nor was the closing Allegretto undersold, its coda emerging as a full-blown cadenza whose artful rhetoric was much in evidence. Not for the first time, these Sonatas tantalised almost despite themselves.
Pires had originally scheduled Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat (D960) for the second half, but having the D935 Impromptus was no hardship and arguably preferable in that this set is less often heard than its D899 predecessor. Admittedly the opening Allegro can seem discursive to the point of diffuseness, though Pires kept its rhapsodising firmly in hand then was no less in control of the ensuing Allegretto, a wistful ‘romanza’ anticipating the intermezzos of Schumann and Brahms. Schubert was never more prescient than when most himself. The undoubted highlight was the Andante with its variations on what is itself a variation of the Rosamunde theme, rendered with an ideal blend of poise and eloquence (older listeners might well recall its opening and closing BBC Radio 3’s Music Weekly programme in the 1970s and 1980s). After this, the final Allegro with its emphatic Hungarian inflections and slightly forced virtuosity can easily pall, yet Pires again kept it on course such that its closing pages confirmed a decisiveness to round off both this piece and, moreover, the sequence overall.
At around seventy minutes, this was a recital as compact as it was satisfying. Hopefully her next Birmingham recital will not be long in coming.