Classical Music Review: New Releases

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - The Complete Piano Sonatas (Heidi Lowy, piano). Piano Sonatas, Nos. 1-18. Fantasie, K.475 in C minor.  Heidi Lowy, piano.  Musical Heritage Society ( 566052F. (6 hrs 50'05).

Mozart's piano sonatas have never quite recovered from the blow given to them by Glenn Gould.  They weren't his kind of music; while graceful and melodious, they lack the contrapuntal density that Gould cherished.  Indeed, Mozart does occasionally over rely on the Alberti bass to provide the illusion of a counter-melody; however, that hardly justifies Gould's assault on them, intriguing as his performances are.  John McCabe suggests that part of the "problem" is that performers and connoisseurs approach Mozart's sonatas as if they were as important a facet of Mozart's oeuvre as Haydn's sonatas are to his.   Haydn's sonatas represent, along with some of the string quartets, the summit of his achievement, sustaining "his his highest level of invention and personal commitment."  In contrast, McCabe views Mozart's sonatas as lighter works, "almost uniformly finely made and full of good things (with a few standing out particularly)."

Heidi Lowy, on the evidence of these recordings, takes a more expansive and sympathetic approach to these works than either Gould or McCabe.  Her playing always emphasizes the essential lyricism of the sonatas without sacrificing the deep emotional content that lies below their often glittering surface.  It's a more romantic approach than might not be acceptable to the rather restrictive requirements of the "period music" movement, but it makes great musical sense.  Indeed, this is the finest complete recording I've ever heard, easily the equal of Walter Klien and Mitsuko Uchida (I've not heard Christoph Eschenbach's recording).  Lowy has a wonderful cantabile style, with smooth phrasing and a graceful technique that belies the sometimes difficult technical demands of Mozart's scores.

Her performances are always well thought out and responsive to the individual sonatas.  In the Sonata No. 4 in E-flat major (K. 281) with its unusual Adagio first movement, Lowy emphasizes the contrast between the two main themes, playing the first with an unhurried rubato and the second more rhythmically.  She carries this idea of contrast over into the second movement, which consists of two alternating minuets.  The concluding Allegro, "clear and sparkling as surging water" to quote Clair W. Van Ausdall's notes, subsumes all notions of contrast in an outburst of exuberance.  Lowy takes the opening Allegro maestoso of the Sonata No. 9 in A minor (K.310) slightly slower than other performances I've heard.  It's an interesting interpretation that gives this normally defiant-sounding opening are more desolate cast, at least until the smoldering third movement Presto (this piece was until recently known as the "Sonata No. 8," but new evidence suggests it was written after K.311).  As a last example consider the Sonata No. 17 in B-Flat Major (K.570), which Alfred Einstein called "the ideal of [Mozart's] sonatas."  Lowy brings it off to perfection delicately balancing the desperate elements of Mozart's style: courtly restraint, intellectual rigor and a buttery smoothness.

I believe that this release is only available through the Musical Heritage Society (see the link in the headnote); however, it is well worth seeking out.

Tony Gualtieri
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