This violinist’s thoughts: Mozart E minor Sonata K.304, B flat Sonata K 454

Posted on December 27th, 2015 by

This violinist’s thoughts: Mozart E minor Sonata K.304

Maria Elisabeth-Electress Palatine-the dedicatee of thesonatas K 301-6 -Johann Heinrich TischbeinMuseum, Heidelberg

Maria Elisabeth-Electress Palatine-the dedicatee of thesonatas K 301-6 -Johann Heinrich Tischbein

The Electress Maria-Elisabeth, dedicatee of this set of sonatas (published by Sieber of Paris) in the Autumn of 1778 was clearly a keyboard player. No fewer than three of the her portraits depict her at, or with harpsichords or pianos. Mozart presented her with the engraved set of parts, as his ‘Opus 1’ on the 7th January 1779 in Munich.

It’s always wonderful to put this sonata back on the practice desk, and to explore it again. I have played this piece all of my life, and am astonished at its melancholy beauty, every time that that I return to work on it. This is best summed up by the extraordinary ‘bridge passage’ in the middle of the second (final) movement (Tempo di menuetto): (rehearsal, lo-fi, extract, with Daniel-Ben Pienaar-December 2015)

Mozart wrote very few piano chamber works in the minor, and only this one in E minor, a tonality which many composers have treated with respect, if not circumspection. One of the topics of conversation in my rehearsals with Daniel Ben Pienaar, is the question of ‘key colour’; E minor, it seems to me has a particularly affecting melancholy – one which I can hear in works stretching from Tartini to Beethoven. But what also seems to happen, and this, I feel, is not spoken of as often as it might be, is that within the frame of a home key, the tonalities to which a piece journeys are conditioned this ‘base’. A demonstration of this-another bridge passage. at the end of the exposition of the first movement (Allegro): mournful bagpipes/musette from the accompanying violin.

I make no apology for appropriating Kenneth Clark’s linking of Mozart and Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). The musette player in his ‘The Shepherds’ (c. 1717-19) sums it up-and if there were ever a painting in E minor, this is it!

Antoine Watteau-The Shepherds (detail) .Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin

Antoine Watteau-The Shepherds (detail) .Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin

Often, I find myself imagining my way through these sonatas, just using these (apparently) interstitial passages. But of course, this is Mozart, so there’s no such thing as ‘marking time’. Sometimes, I find myself imagining that these miraculous machines, are the very substance of the work-filled as they are, with the echoes of the orchestral effects of his preceding generation (most particularly the Mannheim composers). Here’s the transfigured version of the ‘bagpipe’ passage-at the end of the development section-as Mozart floats from the relative major (G) towards B Major.

As so often, the rococo (I use the word carefully) delicacy of the solo piano writing is in marked relief to the resinous fiddle drone; there’s no question, that Mozart never forgot the colour and scratch of the street and country musicians (they played such an important part in the five violin concertos written a few years before this sonata).

Beginnings-B flat Major Sonata K454

Oddly, my serious relationship with Mozart Sonatas began with one of the largest works. It also marked the real beginning of my love affair with recording. I was a second-year undergraduate student at the Royal Academy, and was fortunate that, unlike a lot of my colleagues, I had a serious duo-partnership (with the pianist Rupert Burleigh). This had begun in our very first term as students, preparing to play the huge Sonata by Benjamin Dale. In those days, the now-defunct Radio London broadcast a certain amount of classical music, and they offer us the opportunity to record a full recital for them, in the studio. Only in retrospect do I realise what a boon this actually was. We chose (the hubris of youth) to record Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata, Ravel-Tzigane, and Mozart’s B flat Sonata K545. For two days, we had the run of Maida Vale Studio 2. It was fantastic; a first opportunity to work closely with engineers (on tape, of course) and a producer, and with no real time pressure. I was absolutely hooked, and of course, learnt mountains about the inadequacy of my own playing (one of the real joys of recording, is the radical honesty that comes with it). Every time I come back to this Sonata, I am grateful to the engineers and producer who gave me that  first opportunity.

The opening of K454. The somewhat disorganised look of the page results from the extraordinary circumstances of the premiere

The opening of K454. The somewhat disorganised look of the page results from the extraordinary circumstances of the premiere

The Sonata was  premiered by Mozart at a soiree for the Emperor Joseph II in Vienna in 1784. Mozart’s collaborator was the 19 year old Regina Strinasacchi (1764-1839), and the circumstances of the premiere are have been whispered from musician to musician ever since. She was already a noted virtuoso and arriving in Vienna, was invited to play at very short notice for the Emperor. In order that the concert should make an impact, Strinasacchi realised that she needed a new work, so she asked Mozart, to write her a piece. This he did, but by the evening of the performance, it had not been written out in full, just the violin part, which she played at first sight. This was not uncommon-there are legion accounts of virtuosi arriving in a new city, being tested with a difficult work to sight-read in public. It was a standard form of musical ‘hazing’ and to fall at this hurdle could have terrible consequences. What was unusual in this case was that not only was Strinasacchi playing ‘a prima vista’ but that Mozart was playing from a blank piano part.

This has often been misunderstood. There were not two parts-accompanied piano sonatas were only published in part books. Regina was standing or sitting next to Mozart, looking at the same score. And it’s clear, from the wonderful manuscript which survives, that this was the case. The violin part is written in a different consistency of ink, and seems, that after the first system, the composer was having a degree of difficulty fitting the later-written piano part into the space that he had left blank for the first performance.

What is truly amazing, with all this in mind is the precision with which Mozart has imagined the relative held note lengths of the various lines. If you click on the image of the MS-look at bars 1 and 3. Each time, the composer re-imagined the various ‘tails’ of the held chord starting on the third quarter note of the bar. This is voice leading of the highest order-guiding the ear of the listener to the next phrase by controlling the relative departures from a held/tied, decaying note. This was something which was not worked out on the page, but in his imagination, as the circumstances of the premiere remind us. Here’s that opening, very roughly recorded, in the rehearsal room:

Strinasacchi’s playing profoundly affected both Mozart and his father-who of course, was one of the great pedagogues of any age. Leopold wrote: ‘She plays no note without feeling; even in the Symphony she played everything with expression [he used the French, for emphasis], and no man could play an Adagio with greater feeling or passion than she; she plays each melody with her heart and soul; and her tone and the power of her sound is beautiful. But most of all, one finds that at talented Lady can play with great meaning than a man!’

A silhouette of Strinasacchi, later in life as Madame Schlick

A silhouette of Strinasacchi, later in life as Madame Schlick

Of course, one might argue that Strinasacchi had been educated to do just that. She was one of the last products of ‘La Pieta’, the Venice Orphanage and Convent were Antonio Vivaldi worked and taught between 1703 and 1740 (with a break from 1715-23). It was long a vital stop for visitors to Venice on the ‘grand tour’. J J Rousseau’s reaction, hearing the orchestra in 1770, is a pre-echo of Leopold Mozarts reaction to Regina Strinasacchi:

‘I have not an idea of anything so voluptuous and affecting as this music; the richness of the art, the exquisite taste of the vocal part, the excellence of the voices, the justness of the execution, everything in these delightful concerts concurs to produce an impression which certainly is not the mode, but from which I am of opinion no heart is secure.’Confessions (1770)

The orchestra of the Ospedale della Pietà, playing for a society ball in 1780 (three years after Strinasacchi left). By Francesco Guardi. This little painting hangs in the Alte Pinakotek in Munich, and I visit it every time I am in the city

The orchestra of the Ospedale della Pietà, playing for a society ball in 1780 (three years after Strinasacchi left). By Francesco Guardi. This little painting hangs in the Alte Pinakhotek in Munich, and I visit it every time I am in the city

I am fascinated by the link between composers and their collaborators. In this case, I have little doubt, that the glorious melodic writing of this sonata was partially inspired by Regina’s playing. Mozart wrote to his father, that she played with great ‘taste and feeling’, and this is the very essence of what he wrote for her, epitomized in the glorious ‘shared melody’ of the slow movement, to which, one day, I hope to do justice.