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Brendel and Mozart

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W. A. Mozart, Piano Sonatas, K. 281, 282, 576, and Fantasia in C minor, K. 396, Alfred Brendel, Philips B0003957-02, released February 8, 2005
You can play through the pieces Mozart wrote for the solo piano, as I do at home from time to time, and think you know them fairly well. Then you hear Alfred Brendel play them, and what you hear must be fairly close to how Mozart wanted them played. When I hear Brendel's recordings, it is hard to imagine an overall approach to Mozart or indeed any individual reading that could surpass his work. It is with great anticipated delight that I look forward to hearing Brendel, fresh off his 75th birthday on January 6, live in concert tomorrow night. Incredibly, tickets are still available.

The program for his Kennedy Center recital includes only one of the pieces found on this recording, which came my way recently. The first sonata on this disc, K. 281, is a particular favorite of mine. Brendel's facility in the second theme of the first movement, with all its 32nd notes, just blows my mind. It's not the speed, because I have heard others play at a faster tempo, it's the flow. I also love the single little ornamental change Brendel introduces, at measure 11 on the repeat of the exposition, one extra chromatic note, an F# 32nd note on the downbeat. It's in the parallel measure of the recapitulation, too, where he also alters the last set of four 32nd notes in that measure (C-Bflat-A-G-F). There are similar embellishments, all well thought out, at measure 36 in the repeat of the slow movement's first section (where in the parallel measure in the second section, Mozart himself added his own embellishment to the score) and in the third movement. It may be gilding the lily, but I love it.

K. 282 is another favorite, with its enigmatic Adagio opening that Brendel takes at a languid crawl, mining it for all of its chromatic shifts. After the double menuetto middle movement, Brendel gives a delicately nuanced and very fast reading of the rondo final movement. It is the high point of this particular reading. We then shift to a rather different character, in Mozart's last piano sonata, K. 576, from 1789. As suggested in the liner notes by Misha Donat, this is probably the most technically difficult sonata Mozart wrote, in the contrapuntal passages of the first movement and the third movement's figuration especially. Brendel's reading is tender and patrician in its restraint.

According to some of the preconcert information I have read, Brendel will play the last piece from this disc on his recital in Washington. It is an orphan sonata movement in C minor, now called a fantasia and numbered as K. 385f (formerly K. 396). Hooray for musicology, once again! Far from being an arid intellectualization of music, historical research on the autograph sources has led Brendel to record a version of this score that preserves elements of Mozart's autograph rather than the reworking and completion of Mozart's incomplete score, done by Maximilian Stadler. I have never played any version of this piece myself, because it is not included in the edition of Mozart sonatas that I have owned since time immemorial (the Henle Urtext, naturlisch). Listening to this recording sent me scurrying in search of it. Part of me wishes that Brendel had recorded only the section that Mozart actually notated, including the five bars of violin accompaniment that he added at one point. For the rest of the piece, Mozart may have left some sketch that has not survived but to which Stadler could have had access, although he passed off the work as his own. Whoever wrote it, it's a lyrical and melancholy piece of music, especially in the hands of the wizard. I will hopefully have the score in hand tomorrow night. If he plays the other fantasia in C minor, K. 475 (as listed in other preconcert materials), I will not be too disappointed.

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