I have had the well-known box set of Mozart's Piano Sonatas, performed by Mitsuko Uchida, for many years (Mozart: Piano Sonatas (Complete Mozart Edition, Vol. 17)). Those performances have long been considered by many to be the gold standard in a way, for Mozart's solo piano works, and I've enjoyed them and for a very long time did not consider any need for other performances.
Not until recently, that is, when I decided that I wanted to also have a set of performances of these sonatas, but performed on the fortepiano rather than a modern piano. Perhaps this was just an idealistic notion that being able to listen to the music on the same style and sound of instrument as what Mozart himself would have played, that this would be somehow more "authentic". Still, idealistic or not, Mozart did himself play the piano, the fortepiano that is, quite well in fact. And being able to hear the music as he himself would have heard it, this is desirable, I think.
There are a few performers who have recorded these works on fortepiano. I've had a single disc of Alexei Lubimov's performances - Mozart: Complete Piano Sonatas Volume 3 - for quite a few years, from when these recordings were released on individual CD's. That performance by Lubimov, of Sonata #15 K533 for example, is sublime and exceptional. The well-known Sonata #16, K545, is delightful and played with great delicacy and style. Frankly, unless you are an experienced musician or expert in these things, I don't believe you would notice that it is a fortepiano, but the important thing about Lubimov's performance is the quality and virtuosity. He makes the music sound easy, and I know that it is anything but easy to perform well.
And so when I decided recently to acquire a set of the complete sonatas, selecting this set with performances by Lubimov was an easy one. It is available here on Amazon for a *very* reasonable price (check the third-party sellers, and watch Amazon's own pricing which can vary widely. I picked up my copy for fifteen bucks including Prime shipping, from Amazon itself). The six discs basically contain just the eighteen sonatas, with the addition only of the K400 Allegro in B Flat Minor, the K475 Fantasy in C Minor, and the K312 Allegro in G Minor. A couple of different fortepianos are used - these are identified in the accompanying booklet - and the recordings were made at a couple of different locations in France, between January and June, 1990. The recording quality is superb, crystal clear, putting the listener in the room with the piano, just as the best solo piano recordings will do.
The introductory booklet has some very interesting remarks concerning Mozart and this solo piano music, which I'll paraphrase here, beginning with this quote from Artur Schnabel regarding Mozart's piano music - "Too easy for children, too difficult for artists", and "Children find Mozart easy because of the quantity of the notes, artists find him difficult because of the quality of the notes". The essay goes on to explain how "of all great composers he was the most economical. In the majority of his sonatas, for most of the time, there are only two lines - a melody on the right hand, and a melodic accompaniment in the left. Solid chords are relatively rare. In Mozart there is nothing superfluous. Every note counts, every one has its purpose - not only a musical but also an expressive purpose. No other composer leaves the performer so exposed. none requires such relentless concentration or such continuous subtlety. In Mozart, every inflection, every sliver of silence, the timing of every note, is a matter of crucial importance".
The essay goes on to discuss briefly how Mozart began playing the piano himself at age three, was composing by age five, and became among the finest keyboard players of his time by age twelve or so. Still, he did not begin to compose his piano sonatas until age twenty, having by that time composed eight operas, twenty nine church works, fifteen symphonies, and much more. His development as a composer was therefore well established by the time he turned to the piano sonata; none of these are immature works, there is no juvenilia here. This is a collection of piano music composed by one of our great artists, at his early maturity as a composer, and writing for an instrument that he loved and played himself.
And so, my feeling is that these performances by Lubimov help bring us closer to Mozart's solo piano music, with exceptional performances and interpretations, playing the instrument that Mozart himself played. They are delightful from beginning to end.
As a final point, and in the interest of completeness, I will mention a couple of other choices for those may wish to consider fortepiano performances by others besides Lubimov:
- Mozart: Complete Piano Sonatas And Variations - Ronald Brautigam
The above box set, 10 discs released by BIS, includes Mozart's piano variations plus other miscellaneous pieces, in addition to the complete sonatas. It is the recommended set in the Penguin Guide, for Mozart performed on the fortepiano. I do not have this set myself (I'm very satisfied with the Lubimov box here), but it is not out of the question that at some point in the future I might want to acquire it as well, simply to have another interpretation in my collection.
Finally, for performances that are not of the complete sonatas:
- Mozart: Sonate / Fantasia / Variazioni / Suite - Andreas Staier
- Mozart: Piano Sonatas - K.282, 330, 331, 399, 455, 457, 475 & 574 - Andreas Staier
The above two selections, the first on single CD and the second a 2-cd release, both on the Harmonia Mundi label, are also given high marks by Penguin, who say in part that "there are few recitals on a fortepiano as convincing or as completely right for the music as this" (the 2-cd release includes the music from the first recording, with additional works added). Andreas Staier is a well known and very accomplished performer on harpsichord, fortepiano, and pianoforte (modern piano). The performances on these two discs are also given on a fortepiano that is a copy of one built by the Viennese maker Anton Walter, very similar to the instrument built by the same maker for Mozart himself.