Sonatas for piano and violin

Recital Three: 8 November 2001
Sonatas – in A, K305; in B flat, K378; in F, K547; in E minor, K481

Recital Four: 15 November 2001
Sonatas – in C, K303; in F, K377; in E flat, K302; in A, K526

Mitsuko Uchida (piano) & Mark Steinberg (violin)
In this era where technology and scholarship make the classical music canon ever more accessible and complete, imaginative programming becomes all the more important. In this respect, one could appreciate Uchida and Steinberg’s aims in playing all Mozart’s violins sonatas. Would this be a journey that left one enriched, or completeness for completeness’ sake?
First, one must admit that mere completeness already had its virtues. I wonder how many times we would hear K303 except like this. The lesser sonatas, though they revealed a fallible composer, nevertheless contained many incidental beauties – the breathtaking lightness of touch that ends that very sonata, K303, for instance, or the measured prefiguring of the K421 String Quartet in the variation movement of K377. The presence of K481 and K526 reminded of how Mozart himself developed the duo-sonata form, how the mature masterpieces spring out of a process of constant experimentation and innovation. The performances of these three sonatas (the third being K454) was exemplary, joyful and dashing, yet controlled, in the outer movements, utterly tranquil, yet concentrated, in the slow ones. The finale of K526 had a relaxed, carefree feel that could only have come from the satisfaction of bringing the sonata series to its conclusion. Finally, some of the simplest movements, where the music was left to speak for itself, but delivered with utter conviction, worked the best.
In my response to the programme notes, I found a clue to how this survey changed my view of the sonatas. In Misha Donat’s notes one detected advocacy for the violin’s role. One frequently read something like, “Although the piano part appears to be dominant, the violin in fact has an equal role”. But no special pleading is necessary. In fact, the performances and the sonorities were often most successful precisely when the violin was doubling the piano part. Throughout this second half of the series, I felt that the balance between the instruments had improved, even if it seemed as if Steinberg felt he needed to compensate for the piano sound by adopting a fiercer, broader tone. There is no escaping, however, that irrespective of the problem of the modern instrument, that the piano is dominant in these works. And despite Uchida’s constant sensitivity and appreciation of her partner, one could no more avoid the periodic sense of listening to a ’grande dame’ and her acolyte (if such an appellation can be used for one whose appearance and demeanour are so youthful).
To make these complaints, as I did after the first concert, is, I decided, to miss the point. Rather, this series was a valuable corrective to the Mozart that we hear most frequently, the flawless, unsurpassable masterpieces of the Da Ponte operas, the late piano concertos and symphonies, or the works for clarinet. Instead, this was Mozart with a more human face, working in a form that was still in its infancy. No need to worship Mozart in these sonatas but simply enjoy them, and be grateful for isolated moments of perfection (such as the minor-key variation of K547) and the set-piece mastery of the three great sonatas.
Movements played as encores often have a quite different emotional effect from their initial exposition – the finale of K301 and the serene mediation of the slow movements of K454 or K526. The very process of contextualising works and building moods gives the second hearing a ripeness and fulfilment denied to the initial spark of discovery. These sonatas are a slight part of the violin and piano repertoire, but in these interpretations they were frequently “the still point of the turning world.”


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