And so back to the vexing question: how to play Mozart on a modern grand – within the bounds of “Classical” restraint, deferring to the “limited expressive forces” of the fortepiano, or in a more vigorous and expressive manner, which, paradoxically, may well have been the case for Mozart when dealing with the fortepianos of his time. Who’s right?
To the exponents of the former approach belong artists such as Maria João Pires and Christoph Eschenbach, to the latter Artur Schnabel, Claudio Arrau, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Mitsuko Uchida.
Pires plays Mozart with refinement, poise and fluency. This is definitely smaller-scale Mozart. That’s not at all to say “bad”. Indeed, Pires plays with an assured, fine technique, polish, and clean, articulate phrasing. There’s much to admire here. Beautiful, even, balanced playing.
But in Sonata No. 12in F major, K332, for example, she definitely underplays the Mannheim Rockets that follow the lovely first theme of the first movement. Uchida plays them a bit more forcefully, with more zest and energy, thus helping to separate and contrast with what are two essentially lyrical, “feminine” subjects – unusual for a sonata movement which usually offers two contrasting themes. The finale with its whirlwind of sixteenth notes in 6/8 time, which when played more vigorously is almost proto-Beethovenian in character, is again a bit understated in Pires account, while Uchida plays it with perkiness, zest and energy.
The piano sonata No. 9 in a minor, K310, is actually of an unusual dramatic character, but is much tempered in Pires’ reading. Again, Uchida plumbs deeper into the music.
This set is a reissue by Brilliant Classics of the Denon (Japanese Columbia) recordings from earlier in Pires’ career. The sound quality is excellent.
If the “Classical” restraint approach is your cup of tea in Mozart piano sonatas, you can’t go wrong with this set. And you get beautiful playing which is a joy to listen to.
I would say, first choice would be Uchida’s more probing accounts on Philips, supplemented by whatever live performances by Arrau you can find, such as his all-Mozart recital from the Tanglewood Festival, 1964, released on a 2-CD set by Music and Arts Programs of America (stunning performances, I feel, although I know some people say Arrau plays Mozart like Beethoven and Beethoven like Mozart).
Eschenbach’s DG set features stodgy, four-square performances, unimaginative playing. You can safely pass it up. (I listened to it in its original LP appearance and it put me off Mozart piano sonatas for years.)
However, on DG Pires did a later, second set of the Mozart sonatas and they have been very well received. I read that they are well worth hearing.; the same fluent technique, but a bit more mature in vision.
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