performed by Christoph Eschenbach, or below by Sir András Schiff
We have now reached somewhat of a (very insignificant) milestone in our coverage of Mozart’s piano sonatas.
For one, this puts us a third of the way through his sonata output, a mere 18 works, in contrast with his 27 concertos for the instrument, or the 20 mature (and 16 childhood) sonatas for violin. That’s a lot of music.
The sixth is also the last of the Munich sonatas. I don’t think anyone calls them that, but they were the ones he composed during his visit there in 1774-75.
This last one is also about twice as long as any of the others so far. It’s in the key of D, continuing the composer’s move through the keys. This group of sonatas may not have a name, but this individual one does. It was written for, of all people, an amateur bassoonist, one Baron von Dürnitz, who, Wiki mentions, ultimately “failed to pay for the work.” The article also describes its “departure from the intimacy of the early sonatas.” The first two movements are not really any larger than the others we heard in previous sonatas, but they’re larger sounding, “a more ample, nearly orchestral scale,” says Wiki.
While the clarity and cleanness of the previous two (five?) sonatas is still here, there’s a certain propulsiveness from the very opening, very unlike the more intimate, even subdued, nature of the opening of the fourth sonata. That being said, the first movement still encompasses some elements that might be attributed to Mozart’s having been so impressed with at least one member of the Bach family, like “a descending chain of first inversions, a favourite harmonic formula of the baroque and classical periods.” Wiki points out that this is a “solo passage” that acts to contrast with later “tutti” passages.
I wrote a long time ago about Beethoven’s earliest piano sonatas, and it’s so clear he’s thinking symphonically, about specific orchestral effects, and contrasts and interaction and all the rest, but that was before he’d written any symphonies or concertos. Mozart, by this time had written something like half of his symphonic output. In any case, we do hear not just beautiful melodies, but vivid, meaningful contrasts in this compact first movement.
The second movement, the shortest of the work, is marked as a rondeau en polonaise. That’s French there, and the music may also be French-ish. You might not listen to this movement and think “dance music” but that’s what that marking tells us. It’s stately, for sure, but has its own understated, subtle rhythmic propulsion, and there are also dynamics of contrast and texture here, with moments recalling the kind of intimacy of the earlier sonatas. The opening sounds like a regular slow movement, but it has livelier moments, making even this seemingly straightforward short movement one of contrast and interest.
But it’s got nothing on the finale, which makes up about two thirds of this sonata’s playing time, as if the first two typical sonata-like movements were just preludes to this display of the composer’s skill at theme-and-variations. Wikipedia calls it a “cheerful set of variations, which, up to the adagio variation, has the character of a gavotte,” yet another folk dance, a French one at that, usually in 4/4 time. On a slightly more scholarly note, there’s some interesting discrepancy between Mozart’s own autograph version and an edition published during Mozart’s lifetime as to the amount of ornamentation given to the adagio variation. The sparse ornamentation in the autograph score suggests the composer would have largely improvised these rather than compose them ahead of time.
But that’s a little more than I’m interested in talking about. I’ve heard this piece live (my piano teacher performed it at one of her recitals once), and after the first two movements, this finale feels downright epic, sprawling and enormous in comparison. It’s the first time that a theme-and-variations movement appears in a Mozart piano sonata, and one of the very few times he would ever do so in the rest of his output, apparently, so we have this to savor.
One wonders why the bassoonist didn’t pay for the commission. Surely it’s because he was just a jerk, or came onto hard times, because it’s an exceptional piece for sure, the longest of his solo keyboard output to date and an early masterpiece.
Perhaps one of the answers to why Mozart was thinking symphonically has something to do with his composition of some piano concertos that come shortly after this period, and it’s those works we’ll be discussing for the rest of the week. Only three of them, but they’re interesting in different ways. I’ll be honest: I found these sonatas much more compelling, but there’s something to enjoy in all of them nonetheless, so stay tuned.