Leon McCawley

Mozart: The Piano Sonatas

(CD - Avie #2105)

Review by

This complete cycle of Mozart piano sonatas, with some very desirable additions, has been winning raves in its native Britain, and it's a pleasure to report that they're fully justified. Class Leon McCawley's interpretations of Mozart under two headings -- under that of recordings that place the Mozart sonatas at the center of his output, instead of to the side where they have long resided, and under the more general heading of modern-instrument recordings influenced by the discoveries of period-instrument performers. Class them also as fully thought-out, technically unimpeachable performances of the first class. McCawley takes pains to make his piano sound nearly as smooth as a fortepiano, and to bring out small details hidden in the performances of pianists who bang away. He is alert to the distinctive textures of each sonata, drawing on the insight that Mozart's keyboard textures developed hand in hand with his ability to exploit the large orchestral textures popularized by the Mannheim court orchestra and other virtuoso ensembles of the day. The bigger early sonatas, like the Piano Sonata in D major, K. 284, sound, as they should, like little keyboard symphonies. McCawley's readings are clean, neither too fragile nor too romantic. He plays Mozart's sonatas as serious works, but he has an admirable sense of when to back off and let the music speak for itself -- especially nice is the K. 533 sonata (with its K. 494 completion) at the beginning of disc 5. The magnificent first movement, in which a seemingly inconsequential theme is unexpectedly shown to be the basis first for invertible counterpoint, then for a fugue, and then for some truly profound Bachian combinations of themes, profits handsomely here from McCawley's decision to stay out of the music's way. The more minimal Sonata in B flat, K. 570, is arrestingly graceful. A nice bonus is the inclusion of the Kleine Gigue, K. 574, a wonderful miniature that was a product of Mozart's growing engagement with counterpoint; disc 5 is also filled out with some other fine but fairly obscure short pieces. The closing Adagio in B minor is a unique performance in which McCawley finds Mozart's despair not in the attenuated opening phrase, but in its consequent phrase, and develops his interpretation from there. If you are new to Mozart sonatas, sample some fortepiano performances as well, perhaps by Malcolm Bilson or Siegbert Rampe. If the modern grand is more your speed, this new set can stand with any of the great recordings of the past.

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