Mozart Piano sonata no. 1 in C, K279

performed by Mitsuko Uchida

No more concertos for now.
Move ahead another year, and our dear composer is now 18 years old. He’d have graduated high school by this time if that’d been a thing, and he finally got around to writing his first full piano sonata. I’m interested as to why it isn’t until now that his first completed piano sonata is composed. That being said, he’d written tons of smaller things in his youth, but his first completed three-movement work for solo piano comes some time after his first opera or concerto or symphony or anything, and it does sound more mature; there’s a fresh, inspiring sense of freedom in this writing. Do remember what we said yesterday about the difference between ‘mature’ and ‘late.’  
I do want to take a moment at this juncture to introduce something wonderfully fascinating as an introduction to the solo piano works of Mozart. The genius Robert Levin is back. Please watch the below video, especially the part about ‘Mozart as fashion model’ at around the four-minute mark. It’s much shorter than yesterday’s long video. This is actually part one of the shorter videos I shared yesterday.

If you jump to here in the video, he introduces the first and third movements of today’s sonata and then plays the third movement in its entirety.
I find this interesting because the high standard that we prescribe to Mozart, of beauty and smoothness and perfection, was, perhaps, not as much a result of him reaching said definition of perfection as much as that society at the time, perhaps, used him to define it. If that makes sense. A struggle I have had in writing about these early (and possibly will have with the later) works is not just describing them as ‘pleasant’ ‘pretty’ ‘nice’ ‘clean’ or something along those lines, and Levin nails that on the head. So keep that in mind as I try not to use these terms ad nauseam throughout our discussions.
Most of this work, along with the other two sonatas we’ll be discussing tomorrow and the day after, was composed during Mozart’s trip to Munich in 1774.
The beginning is fluid and smooth, but with some louder moments. It’s really a very pleasant exposition, with some sharp contrasts in dynamics, punctuations of louder chords, and we get it repeated, so the eighty-second exposition lasts us almost three minutes before a very brief development. You know when that shows up. It’s strong, and in a big, obvious minor key. It modulates again, but we only have eighteen bars before we reach the recapitulation, including some far quieter moments, and the movement is over.
The second movement brings us no sad tunes or Classical-era teenage angst. He must have had it at some point, but the boy is already an artist in the truest sense of the word. In fact, it’s quite
‘happy’ or at least carefree and light in its material. It feels… spacious and refreshing. I am trying not to use the words ‘pleasant’ or ‘nice’ a dozen times in each of these posts, but those are really the words that repeatedly come to mind. Think of the kind of music that would play if you wound up a mobile (the kind that hang over babies’ cribs) for an adult; I kind of feel like that’s what this sounds like, although it does have its subtle but noticeable moments of interest and creativity. Uchida’s heavenly playing certainly helps. It’s a nice little movement to get lost in, and the longest of the three.
The third movement is in a quick 2/4. The movement is playful and busy without feeling obnoxious or ‘cluttered.’ The bass is also unusually busy here, making for a virtuosic kind of movement, of course in a Classical sense. The development section here is far more substantial than that of the first movement, and it ends with a coda of two clean, crisp final chords.
The first thing that comes to mind when listening to this piece, especially after the long string of concertos, is how nice it is to have the piano one-on-one. I don’t want to say it’s better without the orchestra, but there’s a freshness, something to the solo piano sonata that makes it feel so nice. I don’t miss the orchestra one bit listening to this piece. It feels like much of the writing, or at least the style, is similar, but it’s easier to appreciate the intricacies of the piano writing, especially in something like the third movement.

What one does realize about this music is that the satisfaction and surprise lies not in big dramatic chords or showy virtuosity like you’d find from Liszt or Rachmaninoff. Watch this.

There is something incredibly satisfying and beautiful in even the most simple of creative harmonic progressions, a simple melody supported by a strong but subtle bass line that moves the whole piece toward its inevitable harmonic destination, with a few surprises here and there. What is it about this simplicity that conveys a sense of such intense beauty and depth? It’s almost contradictory. That’s what begins to take my breath away in a piece like this. It’s so subtle, so understatedly perfect. It doesn’t need the fireworks of later eras.

That being said, this piece will likely still not be a recurring feature of any of my playlists, but it is a wonderful crisp perfect refreshing glass of water, nothing more, nothing less. 

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