The Sonatas for Piano and Violin
Monday 19 September 2005
Sonatas in A, K305; in C, K303: in E flat, K380; in G, K301; in G K301; in F, K547; in B flat, K378
Tuesday 20 September 2005
Sonatas in F, K376; in E flat, K481; in G, K379; in E minor, K304; in B flat, K454
Wednesday 21 September 2005
Sonatas in C, K296; in F, K377; in D, K306; in E flat, K302; in A, K526
Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin) & Lambert Orkis (piano)
Reviewed by: Ying Chang
Reviewed: 21 September, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Few can aspire to play Mozart to Anne-Sophie Mutter’s standard. As an analogy, try the cooking of fine white fish. It’s easy to overcook or over-season, and so spoil or overpower the purity of the flavour; on the other hand, to merely switch the oven or grill on leads to a boring dish. Plain Mozart seldom conveys the originality and imagination of the composer, yet a mannered performance fails to attain the divine simplicity required. There is nowhere to hide in playing Mozart; the transparency of the textures and perfect formal balance mean that the smallest error is apparent.
Even within his output, Mozart’s sonatas for piano and violin present particular problems of balance and judgement. They represent an early stage of the genre, and the relative position of violinist and pianist are reversed; the latter can easily overpower the violin; the melodic line is frequently doubled; even the works themselves are uneven in quality.
I had previously heard the Uchida/Steinberg cycle at the Wigmore Hall, played with intensity and conviction, and flawed only because the stronger personality of the pianist was, ironically, too closely in harmony with the more interesting piano parts. No such fears here – as we might have expected, Mutter was dominant, her pianist, Lambert Orkis, like a musical Jeeves, indispensable but unobtrusive. In theory, then, an ideal counterpart – the fuller part with the paler projection, and vice versa. And in practice, almost invariably so, despite the occasional prominence of the violin part playing an Alberti bass and hiding the piano’s melodic line.
In general, Orkis’s restraint offered an ideally solid platform for the sonatas: rhythmic precision and superb dynamic control at mezzo-piano and below, which gave the recitals a real sense of 18th-century style. Moreover, his steadiness was an excellent canvas on which Mutter’s occasional emotional extravagance – such as in the finales of K481 and K526 – seemed less distorted, more ornamented; an effect of the naturalness that resulted from letting herself go. Orkis also added his own embellishments to repeats to give a sense of ‘authentic’ improvisation. Only occasionally, above all at the very end of the second night, in the coda of K454’s finale, was Orkis’s self-effacing approach found wanting. Mozart writes (though he himself miraculously gave the first performance in front of Joseph II not having had time to notate his own part) a stretto effect – the movement’s habitual quavers turning first to the violin’s impassioned triplets and then to the piano’s brilliant semiquavers. Orkis was reluctant to play with that degree of virtuosity. At times one wondered what a combination such as Argerich and Kremer would make of the cycle.
There is no doubt that both polish and naturalness increased over the three nights. Compare, for example, the wooden approach to the variations of K305 with the fluency of those in K377. My previous experience of Mutter has been uneven; in this case, it seemed more about growing accustomed to this level of projection of such intimate music in such an exposed setting. The worst segment of the cycle was the first half of the first night, when there seemed precious little interplay between Mutter and Orkis, and some glaring failures of intonation on Mutter’s part. Perhaps, too, K303 and K305 are relatively unrewarding as music. And by the end of each concert, except on the last night, when K526 was a sparkling conclusion, the immense effort of concentrating for so long on such unforgiving music seemed to take its toll on the finales of K378 and K454.
The highlight was the second night, most notably K304, written around the time of Mozart’s mother’s death. The second movement was played with wonderful delicacy, the economically constructed music possessing an almost unimaginable depth of feeling (which clearly moved the performers too). The expert integration of violin and piano pervaded many movements, and was most successful in the sensitive playing of slow movements – K378 the best on the first night, K377 and K526 on the third. Mutter was prepared to reduce her tone to a thread; Orkis seemed able to play at any level of pianissimo without failing to project. As the cycle progressed, and the performers relaxed, the interpretations became less studied and more spontaneous. For most of the second and third nights it was easy to be swept away by the commitment and idiomatic style. These sonatas are full of difficulties and pitfalls. However such traps snared Mutter and Orkis, these recitals were a triumphant success. In interview, Mutter has described Mozart as an “X-ray of the soul”; her Mozart is divinely inspired but also reassuringly vulnerable and human.