April 27, 2023


Mozart: Complete Piano Sonatas. Yeol Eum Son, piano. Naïve. $39.99 (6 CDs).

     Mozart’s 18 piano sonatas do not have the same scale and variability as Beethoven’s 32, nor are they as fiendishly difficult as some of Beethoven’s, and the Mozart cycle therefore tends to get comparatively short shrift from pianists and listeners alike: at times there is a sense of the obligatory about some performances, as if pianists are saying “of course these matter because, after all, this is Mozart, but everything is a little ho-hum here, isn’t it?”

     It takes a pianist with the engagement and occasional audacity of Yeol Eum Son to show just how wrongheaded it is to downplay (even if not dismiss) the Mozart sonata cycle. Son shows throughout her performances that the superficial similarities among Mozart’s sonatas – every single one is in three movements, for example – are of much less account than their subtle differences. And the word subtle is particularly important here. The enormous distinctions between early and late Beethoven piano sonatas are obvious (even if some of the best and most popular, such as No. 8, the “Pathétique,” Op. 13, are early works). The differences between Mozart’s earlier and later sonatas are less apparent on the surface and have more to do with changes in expressiveness and in structural details than with significantly different technical demands.

     That Son is well aware of this is clear in her handling of the late but deliberately simple C major sonata, No. 16, K. 545, whose finale is the shortest movement in any Mozart sonata. Far too many pianists seem to consider this little gem a “throwaway,” to be dashed off out of a feeling of necessity or obligation so as to move on to more-substantial fare. This is similar to the way many pianists handle Beethoven’s two earliest sonatas, which were published as Nos. 19 and 20 (Op. 49, Nos. 1 and 2) but date to two or three years before the “Pathétique.” They are part of the cycle and are, after all, by Beethoven, but are often played as if they merit little attention in their own right. And so it tends to be with Mozart’s K. 545. But not in Son’s performance. Although she does not attempt to make the piece overly consequential, she performs it with delicacy and charm that fit the music perfectly and show that it possesses the same level of elegance and balance to be found throughout the Mozart set.

     Delicacy, charm, elegance, balance – these are the watchwords of all of Son’s performances. But they are not all the qualities of the sonatas, and not all of what Son brings to them. She is well aware of the operatic quality possessed by some of these works, and brings forth that element to especially fine effect. This is clearest in No. 10, K. 330, and No. 11, K. 331. The first of these is filled with buffa elements and has a distinctly operatic approach to its themes, complete with a middle movement marked Andante cantabile. The second is best-known for its Alla turca finale but in fact (and in this performance) is strongly weighted toward its huge first movement, nearly twice the length of the other two combined, which is a theme and variations through which Mozart expresses a very wide variety of emotions and explores numerous piano techniques. Son is particularly adept with variations, which involve contrasts that she seems thoroughly to enjoy. The longest movement in any of these sonatas is a theme and variations – it is the finale of No. 6, K. 284, and lasts a full 17-and-a-half minutes – and here as in K. 331, Son explores the material with sensitivity while giving the music an almost improvisational feeling, as if some of the variations have just sprung into being as if by spontaneous generation.

     Son is quite capable of deeper emotional engagement as well. This comes through particularly in the only two minor-key sonatas, No. 9, K. 310 (in A minor) and No. 14, K. 457 (in C minor). In fact, in the second of these, Son is perhaps a trifle over-emotive in the central Adagio, not going so far as to try to give it Romantic intensity but certainly not hesitating to use the resources of a modern grand piano to highlight the seriousness of the slow movement of a work in what was for Mozart a particularly fraught key (the same one he used for Piano Concerto No. 24, K. 491).

     It is, in fact, the use of a modern piano – a Steinway D, the go-to instrument for a substantial number of modern pianists – that is the biggest downside to this otherwise excellent six-CD set on the Naïve label. Because Son gets so strongly involved in the music, she gladly utilizes the piano’s sonority and resonance to make emotional points, underlining the pathos of slow movements and emphasizing the strength of chordal passages. She does not overdo this to an extreme – if she did, this would scarcely be a set worth recommending – but it is apparent throughout the cycle. And this approach is not quite “Mozartean” enough, certainly by the standards of historically informed performance practices (which Son does not offer). Unlike Beethoven, who seemed always to push the piano in new and more-intense directions and became famous for breaking instruments on which he pounded mercilessly, Mozart fully exploited the resources of the instruments of his time (including shorter key travel, damping operated by knee levers rather than pedals, and an overall more-delicate, less-resonant sound) without trying to transform the piano into something that, at the time, it was not capable of becoming. The much-evolved concert grand of today fits Mozart’s sonatas at best imperfectly, so while Son’s interpretations of the music are almost entirely convincing and engaging, the actual sound of her performances is somewhat less so. In this respect, Son’s set of Mozart sonatas does not compare with the cycle performed on five fortepianos by Bart van Oort for Brilliant Classics. Nevertheless, Son’s playing is so good and her commitment to the music, including a near-intuitive grasp of its moods and generally subtle changes of character, is so welcome that this cycle is one to which listeners will likely return again and again for repeated doses of pleasure both in the sonatas and in the pianist.

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