Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Complete Piano Sonatas, Elizabeth Rich, piano

[Connoisseur Society CD 4234, 4236, 4248, 4250, 4254]

February 2006


Iíve always found Mozartís piano sonatas an oddity among his other works for concert hall, stage and church. Sensibilities as acute and encompassing as those of Sviatoslav Richter have been unable to fathom them. More recently, some pianists have dismissed them as fundamentally inferior to the sonatas of Haydn. I suppose thatís one way to deal with an aesthetic problem.

I can remember wandering into the classical section of Tower Records, back when the classical section was treated with a modicum of respect, and being advised by the sales clerk, a middle-aged lady who was in the lovely habit of jotting down passages from exceptional music reviews and attaching PostIts to the CDs, that Walter Klien was the man for the Mozart Sonatas. I bought the two-CD set they had in stock, sonatas K.331 to K.545, took it home, played it for as long as I could endure the boredom, and put on a shelf to gather dust.

Sometime later I discovered the Mozart sonatas played by Glenn Gould, on the inexpensive CBS Odyssey label. Gould disliked Mozartís sonatas, found any number of negative things to say about them, but then, heíd said disparaging things about Bachís Toccatas too, and I absolutely loved how he played them. (Why Mr Gould recorded music he didnít like is a subject of curious speculation.) I bought the complete four-CD set; nor did Gouldís maniacal, iconoclastic instincts let me down: it was thrill a second, though I rather doubt that Mozart in his wildest dreams imagined them played as Glenn Gould played them.

Much later I dusted of Walter Klienís recording. I must have mellowed in the intervening years. I liked it enough to seek an out-of-print copy of the first set, K.283 to K.330. There were no thrills at all, but I recognized the sensitivity and careful thought that went into Klienís very conservative and very traditional performances.

Which brings me to Elizabeth Rich, who seems to have fathomed, to have made sense of, these sonatas like few other pianists. Sheís thought through her interpretations, treated the sonatas with real seriousness, granted them contemplative, temporal and dramatic space in which to evolve and reveal their hidden meanings. Richís whole approach seems out of the ordinary. Of course, ďout of the ordinaryĒ also describes Glenn Gould (albeit a much stronger term than Ďout of the ordinaryí is called for in his case). But while Gouldís playing is largely about Gould, Rich strives to finesse Mozart himself from the hackneyed notes and the historically often boring interpretations.

Klienís performances are elegant, tasteful, delicate, and for all intents highly accurate. But they lack excitement, a certain range of qualities that might be called personality, the supple, immanent presence of the composer. Klienís traditional, safe approach to Mozart gives us sonatas of a rather unflattering and unfortunate contrast to most of Mozartís other work. Other work which is emotive and evocative, capable of rising to empyrean levels of beauty, taking fundamental joy in life, that is profoundly descriptive and personal. I think this, at least in part, explains why Haydnís sonatas appeal to many people whom Mozartís sonatas leave cold: getting at the ďrealĒ Mozart in these technically simple piano sonatas is more challenging than getting at the ďrealĒ Haydn. Elizabeth Rich changes all this: these performances open portals to Mozart Iíve never heard before, they sway and dance with ebullient personality and dimensionality. The Adagio of D major sonata, K.576 is a prime example: contemplative, intimate, unindulgent, personable, yet played with vitality, lightness and sureness of touch.

The Fantasie in C minor, K.475 and Sonata No. 14 in C Minor, K.457 is late Mozart. Six years after heíd last written a piano sonata, Mozart discovered in the library of Baron von Swieten J.S. Bachís Well-Tempered Clavier and Art of the Fugue, two of the greatest keyboard works ever written. The result was the composition of more piano sonatas. The Fantasie was actually written six months after the sonata, but they were published together by Mozart and the Fantasie was intended as a sort of introduction, thematically and emotionally linked to the sonata with which it shares the key of C minor.

The Fantasie is a prime example of Richís amazing musicianship, played with a coherency Iíve never heard before, wherein each idea organically flows from the one preceding it with wit and intelligence and both musical and emotional logic. Or consider the Adagio of K.457. Rich seems ecstatically enthralled by this music; again, the absolute emotional certainty, intelligence, truth. Could this be how Mozart himself played this Adagio?

Rich, of course, has discovered an unprecedented (in my admittedly limited experience) degree of ďseriousnessĒ in Mozartís sonatas, nowhere more so than in K.457/475. Iíve heard the passion and pathos of this music rendered unwittingly ludicrous by over-dramatization, or parched and lifeless by an implacable precision. I can imagine Rich investigating not tempo and technique, but trying to imagine the real man behind the centuries of stereotype. (Much as I enjoy the film Amadeus, it is not merely largely built around specious rumor, but goes out of its way to perpetuate the mythos of the boy genius.)

How can I say this without venturing into a morass of aesthetic speculation? Itís as if these sonatas have a subtle inner life to which the notes and tempi and dynamics merely point: Mozart himself. Almost as if there is an inner music beyond the music. Few pianists consider this possibility; fewer still achieve it. The difference between a performance that really works, and one thatís ordinary, consists of following a spiritual road map, the dynamics of the relationship of voices, the ornamentation and trills, the tempi and the impeccable employment of rubato. Or perhaps I can put it much more simply: it depends on the inevitability of the thousands of moment-to-moment musical decisions the pianist must make. Yes, thatís a good word for it: inevitability. And one discovers in various musical performances both a threshhold and a degree of this quality. Some pianists may not even recognize the former, but Elizabeth Rich does not merely this, she belongs among an exalted few who manifest that quality of inevitability.

Russell Lichter