May 05, 2022


Mozart: Sonatas for Violin and Piano (complete). Andrew Smith, violin; Joshua Pierce, piano. MSR Classics. $49.95 (6 CDs).

     Very little of Mozart’s music receives backhanded compliments, as opposed to forthright ones. There may be some not-quite-complimentary commentary on an occasional incomplete work or one that seems to misfire, such as the partial opera L’oca del Cairo, but by and large, everything by Mozart is discussed with seriousness, often bordering on awe, and with the most sincere appreciation of the musical polymath’s genius in so many genres involving so many instruments.

     Mozart’s violin works, though, tend to engender praise that sometimes seems almost apologetic. His five violin concertos are frequently performed and recorded, as are several short violin-and-orchestra pieces associated with the completed concertos, but Mozart’s own strong preference for writing for and performing on the piano tends to lead performers and commentators alike to give these works somewhat short shrift. That applies even more strongly to Mozart’s violin-and-piano sonatas – most of which the composer himself designated as for piano and violin, lending further credence to the notion that Mozart’s own performing skills on the violin (not to mention the viola!) never led him to a genuine liking for the instrument.

     The Andrew Smith/Joshua Pierce recording of Mozart’s complete violin-and-piano sonatas (or piano-and-violin ones, if you prefer) gives the lie, once and for all, to the notion that Mozart’s works of this type are somehow not quite worthy of his other music. Smith and Pierce simply refuse to apologize for or downplay any of these pieces, even lending their considerable performance talents to the little sonatas written when the composer was all of eight years old. This excellent six-CD MSR Classics release consists of live recordings of half a dozen radio performances from 2019, and the circumstances seem to have inspired Smith and Pierce, who deliver the works with ease, grace, and that marvelous sense of camaraderie that chamber-music players seem to achieve most strongly when they are not doing “take” after “take” in a recording studio.

     As fine as the playing is, the presentation of the sonatas is scarcely without flaws. The instruments are modern ones, and while the performers certainly have a good sense of Mozart’s style, it would be stretching things to call these “historically informed” readings. The piano, in particular, is significantly more sonorous than the instruments of Mozart’s time, and since in many sonatas it already dominates the violin, there is frequently a greater aural imbalance between the instruments than would ideally be the case – despite microphone placement that favors the violin. There is also an extremely peculiar arrangement of the music on the six CDs. For a comprehensive set of discs such as this one, it would be most logical to present all the music chronologically (so listeners could hear how the composer develops over time and how the instrumental balance changes) – or to offer all the mature works in sequence and then the juvenilia and fragments as a kind of appendix. Neither of those approaches is used here – instead, there is a complete mishmash of earlier and later works on most of the discs, resulting in a listening experience that is frequently more jarring than informative. It would be understandable if this had been the way the live radio shows were programmed, with the discs duplicating the sequence that was broadcast, but that is not the case at all. The CDs mix material from different shows in ways that are thoroughly confusing. Disc 1, for example, has one sonata from a February performance, then two from May, then two from April; Disc 2 has two from January, then one from February, then two from May. And so it goes – to such an extent that the assemblers of this recording obviously became confused themselves, since Disc 5 inaccurately details the recording dates of 16 tracks even though the CD contains only 12. There is really no excuse for such a haphazard and disappointing arrangement of such worthy performances.

     But be that as it may, what matters most in this release is how well Smith and Pierce understand the music and how well they handle a number of its challenges, notably including the differing balances between and treatment of instruments in the various sonatas. They are also admirably sensitive to stylistic differentiation, such as the use of galant style in KV 301-306; the deliberately simplified approach of the very last sonata (KV 547, written for amateur performance and here included on a disc with works written when Mozart was 10 years old); and the emotive but not-quite-profound feeling of KV 304 (the only minor-key work among the sonatas, and the only instrumental work of any kind that Mozart wrote in E minor). The final CD in the set includes only the latest sonatas except for KV 547 – that is, KV 454, 481 and 526. The last of these, arguably the greatest of all these pieces, is offered here with admirable restraint and gentility that show it to be well-constructed and sensitively balanced, yet clearly part of a series dating back a remarkable 21 years: the earliest of these sonatas date to 1766, while KV 526 was written in 1787.

     Many fine violinists and pianists have made good cases for a selection of Mozart’s violin-and-piano sonatas, generally playing a dozen of them or fewer. Smith and Pierce offer all 26 completed works, plus a number of fragments or pieces completed by Maximilian Stadler after Mozart’s death. It is certainly fair to deem this recording “complete,” although it is worth pointing out that when it comes to Mozart’s works for these instruments, the matter is a touch complicated: for example, Smith and Pierce do not play the six early sonatas KV 10-15, because they are written for piano and violin but include an ad libitum cello part as well. Does that make them early trios or early entries in this series? Matters are not entirely straightforward in Mozart’s violin-and-piano works, or in his violin works as a whole. But certainly Smith and Pierce are successful here in playing the sonatas with involvement and joy, allowing them to bring forth the listening pleasure that Mozart tries to convey in his music for instruments of all sorts, very definitely including the violin.

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