Mozart: Complete Piano Sonatas

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COMPOSERS: Mozart
LABELS: Avie
WORKS: Complete Piano Sonatas
PERFORMER: Daniel-Ben Pienaar (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: AV 2209

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Daniel-Ben Pienaar has won plaudits for his fine recordings of Bach and Orlando Gibbons, and from the glittering quality of the pianism in this new Mozart cycle it’s not hard to see why. His avowed aim in playing Mozart is to avoid the elegance and gracefulness of traditional performance-practice, and to bring out instead the music’s nervous energy. It’s a valid enough approach, but comes at a price. 

Bluntly put, whenever Mozart writes a passage in continuous semiquavers, Pienaar speeds up, and runs the risk of trivialising the music in the process. This happens so consistently throughout the cycle that it must be deliberate, but it’s no less damaging for that. Take the famous ‘Turkish Rondo’ from the Sonata K331. Pienaar begins it well, and he vividly brings out the percussive effect of the rolled left-hand chords in the major-mode episode. But in the spiralling semiquavers that follow, down goes his foot on the accelerator.  

The unequivocal masterpieces among the sonatas are the A minor K310, the equally turbulent C minor Sonata K457 (played here with its prefatory Fantasy K475), the contrapuntal F major K533 with its pre-existing rondo K494, and the dazzling final sonata K576. There is much to admire in Pienaar’s performances of all four works, and particularly their slow movements.

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The last sonata is beautifully played throughout, with admirable variety of colour and shading in its Adagio, and the ornate middle movement of the C minor Sonata is no less subtly handled. But the opening movement of K310 – shorn of its repeats – is taken at a whirlwind speed that’s hard to reconcile with its imperious ‘Allegro maestoso’ marking. In the end, Pienaar’s tendency to rush is a fatal flaw. For stylish performances of greater consistency, Mitsuko Uchida remains a recommendation. Misha Donat