Leon McCawley

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The British pianist talks about performing all of Mozart's Piano Sonatas at London's Kings Place

This April you're playing all of Mozart's Piano Sonatas in four concerts over one weekend. Quite a challenge?

Absolutely. I’ve never performed them all in one go, although I’ve played them all several times spread out. It’s going to be a new experience for me but I always like a challenge. I decided to programme them all chronologically. I thought that made the best sense, and also the audience can see the progression of Mozart’s style.

Does Mozart's style evolve as much through the Sonatas as with, say, Beethoven?

You don’t feel it as much with Mozart as Beethoven, but in the later Sonatas you can see how he was inspired by the development of Viennese fortepianos. He was experimenting more with dynamic range and the possibilities of colour at the piano, and almost breaking boundaries by using its entire register.

Will you be playing from memory? 

I had to make the decision about this. Normally I give all my recitals and concertos from memory, but because this is a very unusual event in that I’ve got to prepare six hours of music all in one go, it was just quite a daunting prospect. So I decided to play with the music. It might give too much pressure otherwise and take away my enjoyment and chance for experimentation at the piano. Although generally it’s more liberating to play without the music.

How do you go about preparing for a series like this?

The preparation started from childhood. They aren’t pieces you just pick up a few weeks before. I recorded them five years ago to coincide with the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth in 2006. That was a big year for me for performing Mozart, so I’m revisiting the repertoire in a very focused way.

They’re all such perfect gems and so amazingly written, even some of the early Sonatas which people say are perhaps not as interesting compositionally.

Mozart was always trying to think about conveying a beautiful cantabile line and I think about imitating that when I’m playing, as well as imitating the orchestral instruments like the clarinet, which he loved to compose for. Some of the Sonatas are quite orchestral, and very much influenced by the Mannheim Orchestra of the day. The Sonata in D K284, for example, is a piece that’s rarely played and is quite a large-scale work.

Are there any highlights for you?

Well, I love performing them all, but I do think the two minor key Sonatas do stand out. They’re incredibly dramatic, and look forward to Beethoven. The C minor Sonata K457 has so much in common with his slightly later Piano Concerto K491: it’s a very ambitious work with enhanced dynamics and tone.

There’s great tragedy in the A minor Sonata K310. It’s a very powerful piece composed shortly after the death of Mozart’s mother, which he was very affected by and it comes through in his music.

Do you have any particular inspirations when it comes to Mozart?

I worked very closely with Nina Milkina, who was a great and renowned Mozart specialist. She recorded all the Mozart Sonatas for the BBC back in the 1930s. I learnt so much from her, and worked through all the Sonatas with her just before she passed away in 2006. That coincided with the release of my recording. It was a momentous year for that, but also tragic as I lost someone I was very close to. Murray Perahia is another inspiration. He hasn't recorded all of the Sonatas, but I love his interpretations. Clifford Curzon is an inspiration as well.

If you could only listen to one piece of Mozart, what would it be? 

I think it'd have to be the Piano Concerto in A K488. That slow movement is really Mozart to die for. It’s incredibly beautiful and haunting. As far as the Sonatas go, the A minor K310 is one of his great masterpieces of the set. The F major K533 is a more unusual choice, it's one of his quirkiest sonatas. It almost returns to Bach: he’s very influenced by the Two-Part inventions.

Interview by Rebecca Franks

Leon McCawley plays the complete Mozart Piano Sonatas at Kings Place, London from 15-17 April 2011

YouTube: Mozart Unwrapped from KingsPlaceOfficial