February 01, 2018


Mozart: Sonatas for Violin and Piano, KV 296, 301-306, 376-380, 454, 481, 526 and 547. Tomás Cotik, violin; Tao Lin, piano. Centaur. $39.99 (4 CDs).

Polonaise-fantaisie: The Story of a Pianist. Inna Faliks, piano; Rebecca Mozo, narrator. Delos. $24.99 (2 CDs).

     Although all music springs from channeled creative impulses, the exact relationship between an individual piece and the circumstances of the composer’s life at the time the work was written are by no means generally clear. A lot of musicological exegesis tries to establish a level of clarity that is rarely convincing. Do Beethoven’s late quartets directly, in their extension of tonality and structure, reflect his deafness? Maybe. Can Mahler’s clearly autobiographical symphonies be matched to specific events in his life? Sometimes. Does the renunciation theme in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger clearly reflect the composer’s relationship with Mathilde Wesendonck? Perhaps. Is Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony a suicide note or an attempt to move into new symphonic realms, one cut short by his untimely death? Umm, well… Are all the elements of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte tied to Mozart’s Masonic membership, or only some? Hmm. The absence of definitive answers to so many questions like these does not make it any less tempting to search for connections between specific music and the situation under which it came into being. Extended surveys of similar works by a composer can be particularly enlightening in the search, even though they may not provide any conclusive findings. This is one thing that makes the four-CD Centaur recording of 16 of Mozart’s violin-and-piano sonatas so fine – in addition to the sensitivity of the performers and the excellence of their playing. The set is misleadingly labeled “complete,” but that is scarcely the case: Mozart wrote more than 30 sonatas for these instruments, including some early ones that should be played on baroque violin, some other early ones that are for violin or flute, and several that were left incomplete at Mozart’s death and were finished by Maximilian Stadler (best known nowadays for contributing one of the Diabelli waltz variations). The 16 played by Cotik and Lin, though, represent the mature, completed sonatas for violin and piano, and for this reason provide some interesting insight into Mozart’s life at the times he created the works. For example, the very last sonata, KV 547 in F, was specifically written for amateur performers, at a time (one of many) when Mozart needed money. Far greater than most music written for a quick buck (or quick Austrian florin), it is nevertheless a more-straightforward work than the other late violin-and-piano sonatas – indeed, simpler than a number of earlier ones heard here. To their credit, Cotik and Lin give even this lesser sonata a finely honed performance, one that does not overwhelm it – and they bring equal sensitivity to the other pieces here. These fall into two groups of six. The KV 301-306 group mostly includes two-movement works in the galant style, reflective of the influence of Haydn and J.C. Bach and showing the importance of those composers to Mozart’s stylistic development at this time. The most interesting of these is the only one of the 16 sonatas on these discs in a minor key: KV 301 in E minor. It reaches for profundity that it never quite attains, but Cotik and Lin allow its greater emotional reach to come forth without making the work seem deeper than it is. The second six-sonata group, KV 296 and 376-380, primarily includes three-movement works and shows Mozart at this time in his life moving into far greater expressiveness and an increasingly sure-handed blending of virtuosity with emotional communication. And then there are three later sonatas that clearly reflect significant biographical elements: KV 454 in B-flat, written to take advantage of a specific violinist’s penchant for expressive playing – and, also, written for performance in public;  KV 481 in E-flat, which looks both back (in quoting a previously composed Mass) and ahead (in using a theme that would appear in the Jupiter symphony); and KV 526 in A, which vastly expands the piano part and which has an intensity that may be connected to the recent death of the composer’s father. It is to Cotik’s and Lin’s credit that they individualize these sonatas while at the same time being sensitive to their groupings and, where appropriate, the circumstances of their composition – indeed, the performers are at times, if anything, a trifle too Romantic in their expressiveness in the later sonatas. The violin-and-piano sonatas as a group are among Mozart’s less-often-heard music, but this recording shows them not only worthy in their own right but also very distinctly (if scarcely perfectly) illustrative of Mozart’s biographical as well as compositional circumstances when he created the music.

     The blending of music and biography – in this case of the performer rather than any composer – is even clearer, in fact quite explicit, on a new two-CD Delos release called Polonaise-fantaisie: The Story of a Pianist. But the mixture here is less successful than is the Cotik/Lin presentation of Mozart, and indeed this (+++) recording is really a “celebrity profile” of pianist Inna Faliks – the musical focus is incidental to the biographical one, which is a rather upside-down arrangement except for listeners who are devoted fans of the Ukrainian-born performer. Faliks is a fine and sensitive pianist, but neither her personal experience (the words here are by Faliks herself, although spoken by Rebecca Mozo) nor her choice of music that is meaningful to her is particularly surprising or revelatory. Faliks’ fans will be interested in her impressions of Odessa, in her Aunt Dolly and Uncle Ilya, in her emigration to the United States, in how she met her future husband when both were children and re-encountered him later in life. But none of these events is especially distinctive from a biographical standpoint, and none of Faliks’ writing about them stands out in any way beyond the largely unsurprising personal observations she offers. Faliks’ story, including both the narrative and the music interspersed with it, runs an hour and 40 minutes, a near-operatic length for material that simply does not sustain at such length. As for the music itself, although all of it is well-played, it is such a mishmash of styles and so varied in interest that – while the hodgepodge certainly provides insight into Faliks’ taste – the material is simply unconvincing on a strictly musical basis. One bit of Bach from The Well-Tempered Clavier, one Mozart fantasia, a Tchaikovsky nocturne, three Gershwin preludes, two Liszt arrangements (of pieces by Chopin and Paganini), plus pieces by Rodion Shchedrin, Elliott Carter, Jan Freidlin and Harrison Birtwistle, all of them short – this is scarcely a musical mixture representative of anything beyond Faliks’ personal preferences. The result is that the music does not stand on its own – it simply reinforces the idea that this recording is by and about Faliks and intended for her devotees. Interestingly, the only substantial work here is the one that gives the production its title: Chopin’s Polonaise-fantaisie, Op. 61. And Faliks’ performance of this music is emotive, nuanced and altogether convincing. A release built around this sort of pianism, showcasing the musical abilities of the performer while perhaps delving briefly rather than extensively into her background, would have been much more appealing to a much wider audience than this presentation, in which the musical material largely fades into the background except as a way to highlight and focus on a musician who turns the limelight primarily on herself.

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