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I recently spent a memorable evening at a German-Viennese Restaurant in Washington D.C. which is celebrating Mozart's 250th anniversary. It was in effect a classical music nightclub. Following a German dinner, two excellent local musicians, a pianist and a violinist, delighted the audience with a two-hour performance of Mozart's piano and violin sonatas. With the good dinner, lovely company, and relaxed atmosphere, it was a appropriate and outstanding way to hear these delightful pieces.
The evening inspired me to rehear violinist Henryk Szerying and pianist Ingrid Haebler playing the earlier of Mozart's mature violin sonatas on a two CD Phillips set. The music I heard on the town was drawn from the works on this CD, which is justly renowned. Haebler in particular is an unparalleled interpreter of Mozart. The duo's equally famous recording of the Beethoven violin sonatas is also available on Phillips.
The sonatas on this compilation fall into two groups. First, there is the series of seven sonatas Mozart composed at the age of about 22 while living in Mannheim. These are sometimes called the "Palatinate" sonatas. The sonatas are written in an early classical style and show the great influence of J.C. Bach. In fact, the lovely slow movement of the first of these sonatas, K 296, uses a theme that Mozart probably borrowed from him. There is a tendency to exaggerate the degree to which the piano is the dominant partner in these sonatas. Mozart frequently passes his themes back and forth between the two instruments, and the violin sings eloquently with plenty to do.
Only two of these sonatas, in C major K.296, and D major, K. 306, have three movements. The remaining five works are in two movements. The works typically feature lively first movements with a minuet or variation movement to conclude. They provide a great deal of variety. Only one work, in C major, K 303, opens with a slow introduction to a fast opening movement. The finest of these early works is the two-movement sonata in E minor, K.304. The first movement is a work of true fire, and the trio of the second movement is one of the great, hidden moments in all Mozart. Alfred Einstein describes it as "a brief glimpse of bliss."
The second group of sonatas, both in F major and consisting of three movements, K. 376 and K.377, were composed about three years after the first group and are part of a larger set of six. (The remaining four works are on the second volume of Szerying/Haebler.) These works are more ambitious in scope than the earlier set and show a closer collaboration between the two instruments. Although the works are in the same key, they are markedly different in character. K. 376 is a joyful, extroverted piece with a jubilant first movement, a quiet, singing slow movement, and a whimsical rondo. Its companion, K. 377, is one of Mozart's masterpieces. The opening movement, in a major key, is passionate and disquieting. The second movement is a slow theme and variations in the key of D minor. It is in a mood of deep sadness which only intensifies as the variations progress. The finale, is a rare and bittersweet moment of peace. This work together with the E minor sonata discussed above are two buried masterpieces in Mozart's output. Einstein says of the finale to K. 377 that it is the "only one of this kind not alone in Mozart's time, but among all the music that has come after him as well." In addition to the sonatas, this CD includes a set of galant and spirited variations on a French song, K. 359.
I enjoyed the spontaneity and ease of hearing these works performed informally, delightfully, and atmospherically over dinner. But I enjoyed as well the opportunity to hear this music repeatedly at leisure and in private in order to explore its beauties in detail. This is a first-rate CD for those who love Mozart or chamber music.
The quotations above are drawn from Alfred Einstein's famous study "Mozart, His Character,His Work," pp.255, 257.