Arbiter Records 101

W. A. Mozart: The complete piano sonatas, vol. 1

  • This 2 cd set is available as a download only. Due to a recent discovery of another complete Mozart cycle, we are evaluating the best performance of each sonata for a new and extended CD edition.
  • Released Nov 23, 2017
  • On iTunes

Mozart, in his brief lifetime, produced an immense amount of music that has prompted two centuries of musicians and musicologists to study every facet of his compositional art. Despite such activity little attention has been given to the enigmatically few clues as to how Mozart played the piano and what he considered to be “good taste”. Although he employed an Epicurean use of vulgarity in his letters and conversation, vulgarity was abhorrent to Mozart when it encroached on music. One telling episode was an encounter with the composer and virtuoso Muzio Clementi, whose piano works surpassed Mozart’s technical demands. In a rare manifestation of jealousy, Mozart was displeased with Clementi’s rapid playing of thirds and sixths, as this called for a skill which excited the public through a new athletic sound not based on any musical exigency. Their differing aesthetics shapes a perspective in which music can be divided into a private and a public art. A comparable situation occurred in India after its independence when court musicians who served their royal patrons found their positions dissolved and survived by offering their art to the public. Those who thrived best in this new cultural situation emphasized speed and technique. Musicality was another matter.

Clementi was attracted by the sonorities he manipulated through an expanded technique and its novel effect on his listeners. From Mozart’s few comments on what he deemed fine playing, we find that musicality was his priority. The playing he favored was termed “flowing like oil”, implying an even transparency, self-containment and having the essence and vitality of life’s movement away from an experience towards an unknown awaiting destiny.

In one letter Mozart alludes to a particular use of rubato that was later applied by Chopin:

“. . . I am always strictly in time. They all wonder at that. They cannot understand how I keep the left hand independent in the tempo rubato of an adagio, for with them the left hand always follows the right.”

While it seems paradoxical to play one hand evenly while giving full liberty to the other, Sir Charles Halle recalled Chopin’s similar rhythmic treatment as being so subtle that it took him years to realize how Chopin altered beats in his Mazurkas. Mozart’s case must have been as extraordinary as Chopin’s: a daring freedom creating the illusion of serene uniformity.

Unlike the lyrical and dramatic Piano Concertos, Mozart’s sonatas convey an even more intimate side of the composer. Beneath a surface of melody, accompaniment and passagework their meaning is not always apparent. As they are concise and essential, one moment of indifference from a performer is enough to cast an intrusive shadow over their delicate structure. With so much interest in Mozart one wonders why so many performances of the sonatas suffer from poor taste; the earnest quest for objectivity usually produces a relativism that obeys the notes without realizing their purpose. And when expressive gestures attempt to enliven the gray matter, kitsch is the result.

Which leads us to Horszowski. Like Mozart he achieved a formal clarity and was averse to displaying the ego, sonic athleticism or any type of exaggeration as this distracted from the composer’s message. Horszowski’s mastery of Mozart’s style was innate and remains unsurpassed. By following the score with his performances one will notice the way Horszowski is able to illustrate the articulation Mozart specifies and why Mozart chose to make irregular phrases, had successive notes unevenly divided by portato and slurs, and created levels of rhythmic overlapping. When Mozart syncopates above an underlying even pulse, Horszowski’s solid rhythmic framework and well-defined articulation create and sustain a provocative tension. Horszowski was carefully guided and trained by Leschetizky to project accompanying rhythmic figures in the way Czerny had trained him. Czerny’s approach originated with Beethoven, whose language grew from Mozart and Haydn; it thus became instinctive for him. This heightened attention to rhythm, phrasing and a singing tone embody the unique Mozartean synthesis. Also, note how the dance rhythm is projected in the Polonaise of the Sonata K.284! The resulting impression left by Horszowski’s performances is that the pianist, through his studies and mindset, was able to penetrate Mozart’s own way of thinking and how it expressed itself in an art of subtlety and nuance.

Horszowski (1892-1993) began studying Mozart with Leschetizky (1830-1915). On April 12, 1902 Horszowski’s mother wrote her husband of work with Leschetizky on Sonata K.310 in A minor:

“The lesson went rather well today, but M. wasn’t able to learn properly this difficult Sonata in A minor by Mozart. In the lesson two movements of the sonata robbed circa an hour and a half.”

Horszowski’s affinity for Mozart reached its height in this Mozart cycle. In playing all nineteen sonatas from memory he became the first pianist to program them in a series which he offered several times. The first took place in New York in 1960, the last in Helsinki nine years later. Before Horszowski gave all nineteen works in public we find that the A major (K.331) was the only Sonata ever frequently played as its opening Theme with Variations and concluding Turkish Rondo were contrasting enough to attract virtuosi. It was the only Mozart sonata performed in public by De Greef, Goodson, Pachmann, Paderewski, Rosenthal, Sauer and Stojowski. More adventurous were Risler, who played the F major (K. 533/494) and A minor (K.310), Reisenauer (C minor, F major), Petri (A major, Bb K.333 and C minor), Myra Hess (G major, A major, C major, C minor), Gieseking (A major and D major K.576). The one artist active before the Second World War to play many of the sonatas consistently throughout his career was Edwin Fischer (two in C major, C minor, D major, A major, A minor). In the past century we find that Liszt’s pupil Rafael Joseffy played a sonata in 1899 (unspecified) and the composer Alkan once gave the first movement of the D major, K.284. Through documentation collected by the pianist’s wife Bice Horszowski Costa we can approximate Horszowski’s first performances of the Mozart sonatas prior to his 1960 cycle, in chronological order:

  • K.331: London, 1905
  • K.576: Vienna, 1921
  • K.332: Buenos Aires, 1924
  • K.570: Rio de Janeiro, 1924
  • K.333: Zurich, 1928
  • K.330: Neufchatel, 1933
  • K.282: Geneva, 1938
  • K.310: Brazil, 1941
  • K.457: Rio de Janeiro, 1946
  • K.311: Rio de Janeiro, 1947
  • K.533/494: Orlando Florida, 1959

We are grateful to Bice Horszowski Costa for generously authorizing the publication of all nineteen sonatas. She is editing a book on Horszowski based on his diaries and family’s correspondence. Asko Visapaa in Finland and Dr. Karl Miller in Texas taped and saved tapes of these performances. As no other copies exist, their actions saved important musical documents that enrich our cultural patrimony. Without their wise intervention these Sonatas would have been lost to all forever.

Allan Evans ©1995