- Robert Levin: “Mozart: The Piano Sonatas on Mozart’s Fortepiano” (ECM)
- Diyang Mei, Oliver Triendl: “Viola à l’école de Paris” (Avi Music)
- Claire Bryant: “Whole Heart” (Bright Shiny Things)
In Richard Eyre’s 2004 film “Stage Beauty,” the London theater scene is at a crossroads when King Charles II allows women to legally perform onstage for the first time. This leaves Ned Kynaston, a male actor who spent half his life training to play women, out of a job. His acclaimed performance of Desdemona is taken on by an actress named Maria Hughes—the woman who had, up until that point, been his dresser (and star of after-hours underground performances of “Othello”). Ned, about to lose his entire identity, objects: He’s spent half his life training to do the work he does now; Maria doesn’t even know the Five Positions of Feminine Subjugation.
As it turns out, when Maria copies the Five Positions, along with many of the other affects that made Ned a star, she’s a failure as an actress—her success comes from being a novelty. But when she and Ned come together for a performance of “Othello” in which she plays Desdemona and he takes on the title role, the two work together to break the antiquated traditions of stage performance, presenting a death scene that feels more modern and plainspoken—an anachronistic but thrilling bit of Method acting in Restoration England. (Charles II, in the audience for the production, is riveted—but suggests that they may go back to some of the traditional practices in later performances so that it doesn’t feel too close to real life.)
I was reminded of this scene while listening to pianist and musicologist Robert Levin’s new recording of Mozart’s complete Piano Sonatas (along with some of the composer’s fragments, finished by Levin). In an interview with my colleague Jeff Brown last year, Levin—in discussing his 1991 completion of the composer’s Requiem, said: “I don’t want to be wrong. But I don’t really want to be right, either.” It’s an aphorism that hangs over this new recording as much as it does over his acclaimed Requiem completion. Other interpretations of these works can leave Mozart sounding less natural and more like a performance style that would revolve around the pianistic version of the Five Positions of Feminine Subjugation rather than something more Stanislavskian. Levin’s sounds more naturalistic; a plain-spoken delivery of Shakespeare that imbues the text with contemporary meaning and resonance in lieu of relying on the multigenerational inheritance of what we think were the performance practices of the Bard’s time but have little to do with the emotional immediacy of his characters. Who’s wrong? Who’s right? Does it really matter?
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Personally, I’ve spent more time with the Mozart piano sonatas this year than perhaps all other years combined, having written the liner notes for another upcoming recording (Mao Fujita’s on Sony Classical). Despite having earned the famous moniker of “lady-finger music” from Charles Ives, what stuck with me after speaking with Fujita for his recording is the range of interpretive options that Mozart—no slouch at the keyboard himself—offers pianists. “He didn’t always play what he wrote,” Fujita told me earlier this year. “When I play his sonatas only according to what he wrote, it’s quite boring.”
That has left a number of Mozart cycles seemingly designed to meet every taste and kink. Take as one comparison point the finale of his Piano Sonata No. 11, the “Rondo alla Turca.” Mitsuko Uchida, otherwise known as the High Priestess of Mozart, recorded the work in 1984 and presents a faultless read of the score, but one without any sense of improvisation in the famous melody’s repeats. Pop-star-level pianist Lang Lang (whose Mozart tends to be a bit gooier and romantic, especially in solo works) covers the track as an Olympian speed test, sticking the landing in just two minutes. It’s Mozart as Gilbert and Sullivan patter. Fujita’s own performance takes things a bit further, merging a bit of Lang Lang’s speed and dexterity with Uchida’s Mozartean sense and sensibility, while playing with the music’s recurring themes.
All expectations come loose, however, in Levin’s performance. He wastes little time getting to variations on the earworm themes, adding flourishes on repeats within the same phrase, almost before he’s finished the first theme. It’s reminiscent of the party scene in “Amadeus” in which Tom Hulce’s Mozart improvises on-the-spot variations on a musical theme in the style of other composers—an illustration of the giddy pleasures of the mind. Mozart’s piano sonatas offer a musical biography for the composer, lining up with key moments and cities in his timeline; in Levin’s interpretation, they also give us a sense of a quick-witted composer who was keen on wordplay, filling out the image of the untouchable child prodigy who was categorically the best at everything (except living long).
It helps, too, that Levin is recording on Mozart’s own piano, a 1782 Walter that he acquired in 1785 and kept until his death six years later. Unlike later iterations of the instrument whose hammers are covered in felt, the hammers on this piano are covered in leather. This, most likely combined with the effects of time, give its tone a whiskey-hued sort of bite—one that, in the “Rondo alla Turca,” is ideally-suited for capturing the din of an 18th-century Janissary band. It also removes some of the layers of gossamer softness that these works take on with more contemporary pianos, upending the sentimentality or music-box-predictability of the more famous tunes. The connection between the second movement of Sonata No. 16 and the “Don Giovanni” aria “Dalla sua pace,” inherent in the DNA of Uchida’s recording, is less apparent here. Levin’s tempo and the qualities of Mozart’s piano—likely the one on which he wrote this same sonata—take Don Ottavio’s aria of peace and placation and set it at the tempo of Donna Elvira’s tempestuous “Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata.”
These moments of deviation, of divorcing the listener from expectation, come up as well in the music of Bohuslav Martinů, whose Viola Sonata opens a gorgeously autumnal new album from Diyang Mei—who joined the Berlin Philharmonic as its principal violist this season following a stint in the same role with the Munich Philharmonic. Commissioned by American violist Lillian Fuchs, Martinů’s sonata embodies the composer’s belief in “fantasy instead of geometry.” In lieu of traditional sonata form, he plays with the recapitulation of primary themes, inviting curves and angles in order to slightly change the landscape as it passes the listener’s window. In her recent analysis of the work, Rui Li cites this “instance of Martinů’s creativity: recasting the [primary] theme, as opposed to using a standard copy-paste approach.”
Like Levin’s performances of Mozart, Martinů’s work moves on informed instinct. Martinů just drew from a wider range of influences, including the folk music of his native Bohemia, Monteverdi’s madrigals, Renaissance polyphony, Bach concerti, and Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. The folk elements that come into the first movement of his Viola Sonata are augmented by Martinů’s time spent in the United States (escaping first the rise of the Third Reich and, later, Communist rule of Czechoslovakia). It’s easy to hear the fields of Bohemia and Moravia in the lilting tune, but it also carries with it a sense of the post-War Western revival that was currently taking place in the United States: The year after he completed his Viola Sonata, John Ford’s “The Searchers” premiered in cinemas with a score that spoke to the vast, untouched landscapes of the Texas plains. For all the time he spent in America, it’s hard to imagine Martinů—himself no stranger to composing film scores—being completely isolated from this influence.
Martinů is one of five composers that Mei and pianist Oliver Triendl bring together on “Viola à l’École de Paris,” a reference to the unofficial and synonymous school that crept up in the French capital following World War I and the October Revolution. A mass migration of artists—especially Russians—sought refuge in western Europe and were able to build reputations as artistically-interesting expats, their musical styles informed by the cosmopolitan metropolis.
Like Martinů, the St. Petersburg-born Alexander Tcherepnin (the scion of a storied family of artists) had a panoply of interests and menagerie of musical styles, able to switch from one influence to another, “Amadeus”-like, on a dime. The dichotomy between two of his short works included here—1922’s Violin Romance and 1927’s “Elegy”—bridges the gap between Massenet and Stravinsky. Mei teases out these references, imbuing the Romance with both warmth and, at times, the hint of an edge in the Romantic era’s wake. “Elegy” gleams with subtle timbral shifts, never content to glide by on beauty alone. It’s the sort of album you want to listen to while reading a full, Grand Hotel Abyss–style account of the École de Paris, with all of the connections and influences laid bare, to fully appreciate the intelligence of Mei’s performance and his commitment to an overlooked portion of musical history.
Moving further down the strings register is a catalog of composers whose works and lives are currently intersecting. In the liner notes for “Whole Heart,” Claire Bryant notes that many of the works commissioned and recorded for this album came about because of longstanding friendships with the composers, some going back to childhood. The result is indeed whole-hearted, with pieces tailor-made to Bryant’s strengths as a cellist but with legs to become wider gems of solo and duo repertoire. About two thirds of the way through Caroline Shaw’s “Limestone & Felt” (a duet for Bryant and violist Nadia Sirota), Sirota begins to play a perfect fifth in a pattern that soon accelerates, drawing in every microtone between those two notes in the process. The line multiplies and dissolves, an electronic loop delivered in analogue in a moment where the bright texture of limestone meets the static of felt. It’s 30 seconds that I want to play on repeat for an hour.
The textural and tactile recur as themes both explicit and implicit throughout “Whole Heart,” which seems fitting as the album, as well as two of its works, came about during the early days of the pandemic. The opening track, Andrea Casarrubios’s “Seven,” takes its name from the New York ritual of paying homage to first responders and frontline workers every evening with a cacophonous deluge of cheers and pot-clangs every evening at 7 p.m. The first movement opens slowly, lethargically; a person’s body disconnected from the world around them through the haze of isolation. Bryant’s increasingly-urgent cello lines begin to break up the monotony, delivering the same theme with new variations, movement, and life as the evening hour approaches and the communal act of noise comes together once again. ¶
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