Right here on ionarts* I have finally published a review of Paul Johnson’s “Mozart: A Life”. A Travesty, unfortunately, with more mistakes per page than Florence Foster Jenkins’ Queen of the Night aria. But even the worst book about Mozart deserves a soundtrack and unfortunately “Mozart: A Life” does not give any suggestions for recordings that can bring the music to life for the reader (if it were up to me, this type of book would always include an online playlist with a few key works to whet the appetite). In some way I am trying to fill this gap with this list of suggested listening and suggested recordings. Because the discography is long, I split it in three. (* Intended for Forbes.com, but since Paul Johnson is also a Forbes.com contributor, the editors informed me of the site policy never to have fellow contributors review each other's work, which makes good sense, actually.)
A playlist on Spotify – assembled as best possible the shoddy metadata and limited album availability of Spotify allows – can be found here: Sound Advice: Paul Johnson Mozart Discography
The recommendations are sorted by genre, not by chronology of mention in the book. Some of the recommendations, to insert a teaser, you may find again in an upcoming post of the “Best 20 Mozart Recordings” on Forbes.com.
Paul Johnson: “Mozart’s sonatas have suffered because his piano concertos are obviously more accomplished. Among the best earlier sonatas are K.284 (1775), yaddayaddayadda…, K.331 rambleramble. Among the best are the one in
C Minor (K.457) and K.576…, K.457, which is the apotheosis of pianoforte power, the Sonatas in F (K.533) blahblah…, and the one in D, which in places makes the piano sound like a brass instrument and is known as the Trumpet Sonata (K.576).” There’s some nonsense in this – and a suggestion that Paul Johnson is fairly unfamiliar with the fortepiano; the music better speak for itself:
Kristian Bezuidenhout, one of the finest musicians of our time, who happens to be a superb fortepianist playing on some of the finest, most delicious-sounding copies of instruments from Mozart’s time, manages on his traversal of all of Mozart’s keyboard work, to only ever include one of Johnson’s begrudging favorites on his individual volumes. K.284 on volume 7, K.331 on v.5/6, K.457 on v.2, K.533 on v.1, and K.576 on v.8/9. Take you pick: The worst thing that will happen is that Bezuidenhout makes proper nonsense of the idea that Mozart’s piano sonatas are fringe- or less successful output, compared even to the great concertos. If you need a little nudge, I’ll nudge you towards volume 2. This disc is choc-full of (other people’s) favorites and each one of them is played with freshness and a vividness that delights from the first note to the last. Ionarts review here: Dip Your Ears, No.107. Bezuidenhout belongs to the generation of post-divide HIPsters, if you will: Historically Informed Performance used to split listeners down the middle into those who appreciated the extra zest and (alleged) authenticity and were willing to sacrifice some of the gradually established conventions of beauty for it. There was something to that; early copies of old instruments didn’t sound great and the standard of playing was not top-notch. That’s different now and albums the likes of Bezuidenhout’s could only offend the most stalwart anti-HIP ideologues; they are technically perfect, pleasing to every ear, and well beyond making ideological points, only musical ones.
Still, it’s not the only way to play Mozart and the other recommended discs point in different, wonderful stylistic directions: Lithe elegance with Andreas Haefliger (who covers K.533 & 576), no-nonsense—and yet exuberant—pearls of Alicia de Larrocha, who keeps everything together with effortless ease (covering K.284 on volume 2 of her RCA cycle); and Murray Perahia who indulges in all the sweetness there is, without adding too much of his own (covering K.331 and 533).
I would have added something by the wonderful Mozartean Fuo Ts’ong, but that would be giving piano sonatas, so dismissed in the biography, too much weight in this discography and his records have become extremely hard to find, too. On your continued exploration, also keep the name of Ingrid Haebler in the back of your mind. More choices, still, can be gleaned from the ionarts Survey of Mozart Piano Sonata cycles.
Chamber Music: Violin Sonatas
Paul Johnson: “The best [violin sonatas] are the Sonata in B-flat (K.454)… and the one in A (K.526), which has a famous moto perpetuo finale.” But later on he also credits, in passing, “some brilliant sonatas for violin and piano (K.296 and 301 – 306).” These are technically sonatas for piano and violin (or even more precisely: “Sonate pour clavecin ou piano forte avec accompagnemet de violon”, but that’s a minor point in an age where the piano, lest solo, is associated with accompaniment and the violin with solo-work, not vice versa.
Mark Steinberg and Mitsuko Uchida’s is an extraordinary recording, among my top choices of 2005 and reviewed there: Best Recordings of 2005, No.2. Ditto that of Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt, which is a natural complement, despite the overlap in one sonata. It is reviewed here: Dip Your Ears, No.199. Together they cover sonatas 454 and 526. (Actually, Tetzlaff/Vogt would suffice for that, but you don’t want to miss out on the Steinberg/Uchida disc!) Itzhak Perlman and Daniel Barenboim’s traversal is the epitome of a resolutely beautiful, warm style that is slipping away from how this music is performed today, where lighter textures are favored, but it is exemplary of that former style and too gorgeous to deny for the sake of fluctuating taste alone. Their disc, part of a complete cycle, conveniently covers sonatas K.296, 305 and 306. K.301 (and with little other duplication) might be sampled with Maria João Pires and Augustin Dumay, whose extraordinary lightness and elegance is a timeless joy. Or, alternatively, the beautiful HIP recording of Gary Cooper and the wonderful Rachel Podger is a winner (on Channel Classics, including K.301, 303, 481, 7, and 30). Also consider, additionally, Kristian Bezuidenhout again, with violinist Petra Müllejans (longtime co-director of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, a post that Bezuidenhout now holds); they perform Sonatas K.454, 379, 296 and Six Variations on “Au bord d’une fontaine”.
Chamber Music: String Quartets
Johnson: “But it is clear from a study of these quartets (K.168 – 73) that Haydn had a steadying, calming, and deepening effect on Mozart’s chamber music style, without in any way diminishing his natural effervescence. The two final works in the group, K.172 and K.173, are among the most perfect he wrote, violins, viola, and cello wreathing into each other with magical grace, so that it seems at times as though the four players are working one gigantic integrated instrument.” Also: “The king of Prussia got a magnificent String Quartet in D Major (K.575). The other “Haydn” and “Prussian” Quartets get mention only in passing (“In his last string quartet, K.590 of 1790, he gives some splendid solos to the viola, demanding great virtuosity but showing off the tremendous resources of the instrument, especially in the chromatic passages”), but they are – even if one concedes that the quartets are, as a genre, not as strong in Mozart’s output as, say, his quintets and trios – such important and wonderful works, they need to be included. Aside, they are so easily had together.
I would, without the least bit of hesitation, recommend the set of the impeccably and inspired playing Quatuor Mosaïques (which came out of Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s Concentus Musicus). Their recordings of Haydn and Mozart set a standard for original instrument performances and elevated the genre from niche to mainstream. Alas, these recordings are always in and out of print and the Naïve label seems to re-issue them only piecemeal or when the Amazon price for used copies has reached $500. Keep your eyes peeled. Meanwhile, the modern instrument Klenke Quartet(t)’s liveliness and precision in sparkling renditions equally set a very high standard indeed. For old-world Mozartean beauty, there’s little that goes beyond the Amadeus Quartet, whose box of early recordings on Audite would make a splendid recommendation, alas I try to stay away from catch-all boxes. On the other side, that set includes most of the String Quintets and the Clarinet Quintet, too… which makes for a whole lot of essential Mozart in one place. Although I don’t easily fall in love with the Emerson Quartet’s Mozart (and their classical repertoire performances in general), the undeniable quality and convenience of their recording of the last three quartets gives them the nod here. There’s an air of disinfectant to the affair, but not unlike the Hagen Quartet’s ‘X-Ray’ vision in late Beethoven, the total neatness has intriguing merits all of its own. As for the early quartets, there are not many recordings outside of yet more boxes where they can be found (the Hagen Quartet recordings on DG are out of print), but fortunately the Éder Quartet performances on Naxos are very enjoyable, indeed, with a bit of a boom and broadness to them, that make these quartets sound perhaps a little more mature, still, than they are.
Chamber Music: Duets, Trios, Quintets
The Duos for Violin and Viola K.423, 424 (coupled with two such works by Michael Haydn, Joseph’s younger brother and a Salzburg mentor friend of Mozart’s) are wonderfully played by Rachel Podger and Jane Rogers. Mozart’s trios don’t get much mention in the book, which isn’t very surprising as they are a little on the neglected and decidedly underrated side in his output, but two do, in passing: The Kegelstatt on every mention of the clarinet (“[K.498] is… experimental, bringing the three instruments together for the first time and showing how well the combination works.”), and K.502: The year 1786 saw the production of the three finest piano concertos, the Marriage of Figaro, the wonderful Piano Trio in B-flat Major (K.502), the Clarinet Trio (K.498), and his most splendid symphony to date…”.
The “Kegelstatt” Clarinet Trio is included on Martin Fröst’s disc (BIS) of the Clarinet Concerto (see below), but there’s a chance to hear the Quatuor Mosaïques (see above) in this works, too, and the Clarinet Quintet, and it shouldn’t be missed, especially because it features Wolfgang Meryer on the basset horn/clarinet, which gives these works a different, absolutely wonderful timbre. It’s the second-best thing to the very much out-of-print recording on K617 with the Quatuor Stadler and J.C.Veihan. Another way of hearing the Quintet, which features one of the most beautiful slow movements ever composed is Charles Neidich’s his classic SEON/Sony classic with L’Archibudelli containing the Clarinet Quintet, Quartet, and Trio. The Piano Trios have received many splendid recordings: the Mozartean Players (on various Harmonia Mundi re-issues) are favorites and the Beaux Arts Trio (Philips/Decca) are still worthy stalwarts. But the Florestan Trio (Susan Tomes, piano; Anthony Marwood, violin; Richard Lester,cello), a musical force of nature for the 17 years of their existence, has everything in abundance: perfection, grace, and feeling. It’s an easy pick.
The Talich Quartet recordings (formerly Caliope, now beautifully re-issued on La Dolce Volta) of the String Quintets (and here I’ll go out on a hyperbolic limb myself and call these, as a group, the finest in Mozart’s chamber music) is musical old-world gold but in 1990s sound, with occasionally lingering wistfulness between the notes and dark and gorgeously desperate when necessary, and a delight from the first note to the last. It is and remains one of the finest Mozart recordings I know, even—or because?—of a lack of that total list bit of perfection. They were an easy inclusion in my “Best Recordings of 2013” list. Before them, the Grumiaux Trio (Philips/Decca) was a worthy placeholder.