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Mozart: Complete Piano Sonatas (Robert Levin)

Robert Levin (fortepiano) (ECM)

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

Mozart
Complete Piano Sonatas
Robert Levin (fortepiano)
ECM ECM 2710-16   377:11 mins (7 discs)

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Robert Levin, fortepianist, professor emeritus at Harvard and much more besides, is one of few people who have ever been granted access to play Mozart’s own piano in Salzburg. Thought to have been made by the Walter firm around 1782, this was the instrument on which Mozart would have created and performed most of his Viennese-period piano music. Despite its age, it sounds in splendid shape, having been lovingly maintained by the Mozarteum Foundation. Levin draws from it a silvery, open, singing treble, a characterfully woody tenor register, a chunky bass and, besides great clarity, a pearly contrast when using the knee-operated felt damper.

You might think the instrument’s modest size and sound would restrict expression, yet the reverse seems true: Levin zooms in fearlessly, putting the music’s emotion and narrative progression centre stage. After all, pianos don’t play themselves. The crucial factor is the profound understanding, sophistication and sense of joy with which he delves into the personality of the composer, not just that of his piano.

Most of the sonatas are gems; some are masterpieces. Levin gives them their due. They spring off the page as close siblings to Mozart’s symphonies and string quartets. Each note is inhabited with vitality, each phrase urgent with meaningful expression. He offers a magnificent articulation of dramatic argument, employing a flexible ebb and flow, pertinent use of voicing and of silences, and a passionate empathy with the composer’s mercurial imagination. The sonatas often take on the spirit of concerto movements or operatic ensembles; the C minor Fantasia K475 and Sonata K457 reach the kind of territory where Donna Anna recognises Don Giovanni as her father’s murderer.

Mozart seems to have been a sparkly soul with an irrepressible sense of humour and an unquenchable virtuoso technique; he also left evidence that he could improvise an entire sonata during a concert. Levin gives his own expertise in improvisation its head during repeats and restatements. Already virtuosic music blossoms out with dazzling splashes of fresh fingerpaint (try the F major Sonata K332 for one example), extending to audacious amplifications of detail in melodic lines and harmonies. Would Mozart have had so much fun with them?
I reckon so.

He left a large number of unfinished works, including sonata movements, probably not because he was dissatisfied with them, but because he lacked adequate time to write them down. Levin includes several sonata movements he has completed himself, among them the B flat K400 and G minor K312: new versions that feel seamless and carry complete conviction.

Recorded sound quality is warm and bright, allowing pianist and piano to shine. The chunky booklet contains a long essay by Ulrich Leisinger delving into the sonatas, a performer’s note by Levin and an introduction to the centuries-old instrument.

The whole project, then, is a stunner. Without neglecting faithfulness to the letter, Levin prioritises faithfulness to the spirit. This treasurable set may cast crucial light not only on these sonatas, but also on how we consider the very nature of historical performance.

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Jessica Duchen