Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Two Mozart Violin Sonatas

This afternoon's pre-season preview of the Midsummer Mozart Festival at the Noontime Concerts™ series at Old St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco differed from the first preview concert in just about every possible way. While the first concert featured "chamber quartets" (flute-strings and piano-strings) of the "Viennese" Mozart (the K. 478 G minor piano quartet and an arrangement of selections from the K. 629 opera, Die Zauberflöte), today's concert presented two sonatas for piano and violin from the same year (1778) but different cities (K. 301 from Mannheim and K. 304 from Paris). Note the order of the instruments: It is taken from Elizabeth C. Moore's classification of Köchel's catalog according to (presumably) her own system of categories, which is one of the Appendices in Louis Biancolli's Mozart Handbook. The relevant portion of the taxonomy for these works is:



1. Duo Sonatas for Piano and Violin

At the very least this indicates that the piano is never "mere accompaniment;" and this "equality of resources" was definitely well honored by violinist Robin Hansen (concert master of the Midsummer Mozart Festival Orchestra) and pianist Miles Graber, who performed in the piano quartet at the first preview concert. Also, if consecutive Köchel numbers indicate anything, it would appear that each of these sonatas is part of a set of three (301-302-303 and 304-305-306, respectively). More interesting, however, is the extent to which K. 301 and K. 304 differ as much as their respective cities (without necessarily reflecting either of them). Probably the only thing they have in common is that each is in two movements.

K. 301 is in G major; and the two movements are marked Allegro con spirito and Allegro, respectively. The first movement definitely involves a spirited give-and-take between piano and violin, with some relatively clever approaches to sharing material but a generally rhetorical familiarity to the material itself. In his remarks to the audience, George Cleve, director of the Midsummer Mozart Festival, described the second movement as a Ländler; and, to my ears, it seemed to occupy a middle ground between folk dance and rondo without being particularly uncomfortable in either setting. There is an affability to this music that may (or may not) have something to do with Mozart's first contact with the four daughters of Fridolin Weber (one of whom, Constanze, he married after having been rejected by her sister, Aloysia).

The most important contrasting element in K. 304 is that it is in E minor. As Cleve pointed out, Mozart tended to be at his most adventurous in the minor key (as he was in the K. 478 piano quartet). Cleve also observed that, if we did not know better, we might mistake this sonata for the work of Franz Schubert; and this is particularly true of the Tempo di menuetto, which is anything but a danceable minuet. Even the Trio of this movement, which moves to major, has an element of moody darkness that would make dancing feel like frivolous excess. The first movement, on the other hand, explores areas of light and dark frequently by choice of violin string, introducing material in the shadows of the G string and then bringing them to light with the higher strings. All of this coloration is then supported by both harmonic and contrapuntal coloration from the piano; and, as Cleve suggested, a prospective anticipation of Schubert can be heard in both of these movements. However, if we restrict our attention to Mozart's present, so to speak, his time in Paris appears to have been far less pleasant than Mannheim, which he had just departed; so his urge to experiment may have reflected the combined influences of boredom and the memory of Aloysia Weber.

Note that, while Mozart was in his early twenties, neither of these sonatas reflects that showy "inner twenty-year old," about whom I find myself writing so frequently. Both sonatas show considerable skill; but neither is a show-off piece. This may well be due to the intimacy of the chamber setting, in which Mozart is not trying to dazzle a large audience. These works thus provide us with an excellent window on the craftsman, rather than the performer; and their coupling made for an informative exposure to the diversity of Mozart's approaches to his craft.

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