Classical CD Reviews

MOZART: Complete Works for Two Pianos – Pierce and Jonas, duo-pianists/ Slovak Philharmonic/ Paul Freeman – MSR

Life-asserting music from Mozart; too bad there aren’t more two-piano works in his catalog.

Published on September 20, 2011

MOZART: Complete Works for Two Pianos = Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in E-flat Major, K. 365; Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K. 448; Adagio and Fugue in C Minor, K. 546/K. 426; Larghetto and Allegro in E-Flat Major – Pierce and Jonas, duo pianists / Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra / Paul Freeman – MSR Classics MS 1390 [Distr. Albany], 63:56 ****:

Here we do seem to have the complete works by Mozart for two pianos. Unless manuscripts are lurking somewhere in attics, libraries, or curio shops, this is it. Indeed, the Mozart canon was fairly recently expanded by the discovery, in 1963, of the incomplete Larghetto and Allegro for two pianos. The Allegro consists only of an exposition; to create a performing version, a development and recapitulation-coda were crafted by several hands. The version played by the Pierce and Jonas duo represents a conflation of the work of Franz Beyer and Paul Badura-Skoda. It sounds pretty convincing to me; I don’t notice any seams or joins.

Given Mozart’s connections and his skills as a pianist, it seems odd that there isn’t more two-piano music from him. Early in his career, he formed a virtuoso duo with his older sister, Nannerl, performing widely for the nobility. Yet the only two-piano work we have that connects the two is the Concerto No. 10 for Two Pianos of 1779, written for Mozart and his sister to play. Shortly afterward, the composer left Nannerl and his native Salzburg for Vienna. The other works on this disc are from Mozart’s Vienna years.

The Concerto was originally scored for an orchestra of strings, oboes, bassoons, and horns. Later, in Vienna, with its more advanced instrumental resources, Mozart added two clarinets, two trumpets, and timpani, which makes the piece sound much more extrovert and festive. However, even without the added instruments, the work is a showcase for the pianists, who get to show off in their very first entry with a loud octave trill followed by various pyrotechnics that would have challenged most pianists of the day.  Like the first movement, the slow movement is in sonata-allegro form but is restrained, patrician in character, touched with a fleeting melancholy at one point in the development, where the minor key intrudes. In contrast, the buoyant rondo finale is all smiles. It’s easy to see why this has always been among Mozart’s most popular concertos.

The Sonata for Two Pianos was written for Mozart’s apparently very gifted Viennese pupil Josephine von Aurnhammer and debuted at a concert held in her parent’s home, when Josephine played the Primo part, not a mean feat. This is one of those pieces that must be as much fun to play as it is to hear; in either case, it makes one sorry that Mozart didn’t write any more music for his talented pupil.

Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue appeared in 1788, when the composer’s production had started to slow as the commissions began to dry up. The Fugue, however, comes from 1782 and reflects Mozart’s introduction to the works of Bach by Baron Gottfried van Swieten, the librettist for Haydn’s two great oratorios. Van Swieten was also a composer and musical scholar who introduced a number of Viennese masters to the works of Bach and Handel. Mozart was apparently quite proud of his Fugue and thought it represented thorough parity with Bach’s skills at counterpoint. He was sufficiently proud to add the Adagio in 1788 and recast the Fugue, originally scored for two pianos, for string quartet. Later, Mozart transcribed the Adagio for two pianos as well, hence the version we have on the current disc.

These pieces are all exuberant examples of the joys of music-making. Maybe the two-piano works aren’t Mozart at his most profound, but they are the composer at his most attractively life-asserting. The Pierce and Jonas duo, who have been making music together since 1978, play with that spirit in mind. Their technical prowess and interpretive skills make these performances a pleasure to hear as the duo shapes the lovely slow movement of the Sonata with subtle rubato and delicately shaded dynamics. The fast movements are real powerhouses in their hands.

Well-known soloists such as Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu (on Sony) have recorded this music, but I find Pierce and Jonas competitive. In the Concerto, taken from a live recording made in Bratislava in 1993, there are the usual slight lapses in ensemble, and the orchestra gets off to a start that isn’t as sparkling as it might be (though the players catch fire later). But this performance, too, is mostly admirable. The sound is full and very stereo even if it isn’t the ultimate word in transparency. However, the other recordings, made at SUNY’s Purchase, New York, campus are quite fine, fully matching the performances. In all, this disc makes you wish there were more Mozart for Pierce and Jonas to play.

—Lee Passarella

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