It is now customary to speak of Mozart’s Sonatas for keyboard as of his “piano” Sonatas; and yet this common attribution is somewhat misleading in limiting our understanding of Mozart’s sonorities. We also commonly hear his Sonatas on the concert stage; and this is, in turn, a form of perfectly legitimate enjoyment of his exquisite works, but also a de-contextualization which deprives them of their ideal setting.
Mozart was a virtuoso of the keyboard, even though he could play also the violin and viola at a very high level. His keyboard performances earned him his early fame, dating from the time of his childhood tours in the European courts. They also continued to sustain both his finances and his reputation: he organized subscription events in which he played his Concertos and earned, at the same time, the money he frequently and rather desperately needed, and the success which could result in the operatic commissions he ardently desired.
However, if – possibly – the ideal instrument for the performance of his mature keyboard Concertos is the fortepiano, the very different qualities of the clavichord may be the best suited to his Sonatas, whose public dimension is markedly less pronounced. True, in Mozart’s Concertos there is more dialogue than rivalry between the soloist and the orchestra, and frequently the sound of the fortepiano is purposefully designed so that it can merge effortlessly with the orchestral sounds; however, on other occasions, the soloist must stand out against the background of the accompanying instrument, and display his or her virtuosity with a brilliance typical of the theatrical stage. By contrast, the clavichord has a more limited dynamic range, but its very peculiar mechanism allows – and demands – a perfect control of the sound, of the shades, and of the touch.
It is an instrument which gives its best in a small room, where the performer is either alone or surrounded by few other people; ideally, this very restricted audience should include connoisseurs who can delight in the player’s refinement, in the capability for slight variances in ornamentation and phrasing, in the details which only a true music lover can grasp and appreciate.
It is not by chance, therefore, that several of the pieces recorded in this Da Vinci Classics CD can tell us stories of Mozart’s social life, of his relationships and of his acquaintances. While a Concerto, similar to a theatrical play or operatic work, should speak to all kinds of listeners and powerfully impress them, a Sonata, similar to a one-to-one conversation, can and should be adapted to the interlocutor’s sensitivity and receptiveness. These interlocutors could be Mozart’s actual or perspective patrons – music-loving patricians who delighted in both hearing and playing the clavichord –, but also his students and his friends.
Mozart was just eighteen when he wrote the first of the Sonatas recorded here (F-major, KV 280). He was preparing a kind of portfolio, showcasing his ability in both composition and performance: his most immediate aim was to impress the listeners whom he would meet during his important tour to Munich, in autumn 1774. The marks of his individuality and personality are of course clearly distinguishable; yet, the originality of his musical thought is not diminished if we pause to observe his equally evident reliance on authoritative models, such as those provided by Italian keyboard composers such as Galuppi and Sammartini or German-speaking musicians such as Johann Christian Bach and Franz Joseph Haydn.
In particular, Mozart’s F-major Sonata seems visibly to be inspired by Haydn’s Sonata Hob. XVI/23, which is also in F major and had been published the year before (1773); it is likely that Mozart heard it during his stay in Vienna in the summer of that same year. The analogies are particularly striking in the second movement, a Siciliano which gives us a glimpse of many other touching movements of the same kind, written by Mozart in the following years. One has only to think of the slow movement of the A-major Concerto KV 488, or of Pamina’s Ach, ich fühl’s, to acknowledge the subtle fascination exercised by this slow dance in the minor mode on Mozart’s creative fantasy. This is by no means the only dance found in this Sonata, however: the opening measures are manifestly inspired by the most solemn of the court Minuets, while the third movement can be likened to a Gigue. The Adagio also bears an uncannily resemblance to a work by J. S. Bach, the Siciliano BWV 1031, though it is improbable that Mozart could know it at that time.
The F-major Sonata was dedicated, along with others, to one Baron von Dürnitz; however, in the following years Mozart would either play it for, or give it to play to other people whose relationship to him was certainly not that of patronage. In 1777, Mozart played it in the house of Christian Cannabich in Mannheim; and in 1778, he wrote to his father that a certain Aloysia Weber, a famous singer, had played it perfectly (if somewhat slowly) at sight, and that he preferred her playing to that of the Mannheim Vice-Kapellmeister. The grounds for Mozart’s preference may have been not entirely musical, however, since – as is well known – Mozart was passionately in love with Aloysia, even though he would later marry her sister Constanze. By contrast, Cannabich was one of Mozart’s friends, and was defined by the composer as the finest orchestra conductor he had ever heard. Cannabich had a son, Carl, who was just six years old when Mozart visited their household (and who would follow in his father’s footsteps), and a daughter, Rose, who was thirteen and played the keyboard. Mozart liked Rose, whom he described as “calm and judicious”; she gave him an “indescribable satisfaction” when she played one of his Sonatas “perfectly”. This was the C-major Sonata KV 309 (1777), which Mozart allegedly improvised at the Cannabichs’ (and which he modestly described as “magnificent”); its second movement, in Mozart’s words, is a portrait of Rose. It certainly mirrors the girl’s reflective and profound mood; and it has been argued that the words “Rose Cannabich” can also be sung on the notes of this movement’s main theme.
Another young woman was probably the intended performer of the D-major Sonata KV 576, written by Mozart in 1789 and allegedly conceived for Princess Friederike Charlotte, daughter of King Frederick William II of Prussia. Though she was already 22 when Mozart visited the Prussian court, she was – as many people of her social class – an amateur performer with rather limited musical skills. Since Mozart wrote to a friend that he was composing a set of “easy” pieces for the Princess, several scholars have cast doubts on the inclusion of this Sonatas among the collection, since it is certainly not a piece for beginners. Its brilliant triadic opening has earned it the nickname of “Hunt Sonata” in the English-speaking countries, due to its resemblance to hunting-horn calls; however, its most notable feature is its contrapuntal complexity and refinement. In this case – different from KV 280 – the influence of J. S. Bach is direct and evident: Mozart had been studying closely the works by Bach and Händel, also encouraged by Baron Gottfried von Swieten who was a passionate collector and appreciator of Baroque works.
This Sonata was doomed to become the last finished piece written by Mozart for the keyboard. In the following year, 1790, he probably intended to compose other Sonatas, and the Allegro KV 312 which completes the programme on this CD may well have been intended as the first movement of an unfinished Sonata. Its relative simplicity might qualify it for inclusion in the projected set for Princess Friederike: a collection which Mozart regarded as a provider of economic security and as a guaranty which could have secured him the funds he sorely needed. Indeed, writing to his friend and fellow freemason Puchberg, from whom he hoped to borrow money, Mozart explicitly mentioned the composition of keyboard Sonatas as a rather safe source of income. Even though our romantic concept of the musician as a free creator, unconstrained by any external factors, may be shaken by such a seemingly utilitarian view of the artistic work, the mark of a genius is precisely in his or her capability to realize masterpieces almost at will: in spite of its relative simplicity and of the unpoetic circumstances of its creation, this Allegro is a true neglected gem. Not only the intended Sonata has been left unfinished by Mozart, however: the Allegro itself remained incomplete and was provided with integration by an anonymous nineteenth-century composer: the fragment was fortunately preserved also thanks to Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, who collected it, along with other valuable autographs, in order to present it to his bride-to-be. In the key of G-minor (an iconic and psychologically charged key for Mozart), the Allegro is rich in diminished sevenths and dynamic contrasts, which confer a rich emotional palette to a piece whose technical challenges are limited.
All of these features find their ideal rendition in the clavichord’s sound, in its potential for a detailed shading and in its restraint from magniloquent grandiosity or shiny virtuosity. Played on this instrument, Mozart’s Sonatas and his Allegro reveal their innermost qualities, their touching beauty, their expressive power. This recording, thus, is a valuable opportunity for listening with new ears to works which are very commonly played, but, possibly, also frequently misunderstood.
Album notes by Chiara Bertoglio
De Cecco, Giovanni (Clavichordist), He studied privately with Venetian organist Maestro Giovanni Ferrari, and then graduated in piano from the “Benedetto Marcello” Conservatory in Venice with Anna Barutti. Meanwhile he graduated in Philosophy from the “Ca’Foscary” University of the same city. He started his musical career with ethnomusicological journeys following Bela Bartók’s footsteps in Romania, studying Romanian nd Hungarian traditional music. He is a passionate player of historical keyboards, primarily clavichord, above all of the galant style and Sturm und Drang repertoire. He has performed in Germany, Hungary, Austria, Romania, Italy, Sweden, Czech Republic, Iran, Turkey, the United States, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Hong Kong. He combines his activity as a concert performer with his work as a teacher in numerous master classes, especially in Asia.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: (b Salzburg, 27 Jan 1756; d Vienna, 5 Dec 1791). Austrian composer, son of Leopold Mozart. His style essentially represents a synthesis of many different elements, which coalesced in his Viennese years, from 1781 on, into an idiom now regarded as a peak of Viennese Classicism. The mature music, distinguished by its melodic beauty, its formal elegance and its richness of harmony and texture, is deeply coloured by Italian opera though also rooted in Austrian and south German instrumental traditions. Unlike Haydn, his senior by 24 years, and Beethoven, his junior by 15, he excelled in every medium current in his time. He may thus be regarded as the most universal composer in the history of Western music.