“Late Dates with MOZART” = Sonata in B-flat Major for Piano and Violin, K. 454; Sonata in E-flat Major for Piano and Violin, K. 481; Sonata in A Major for Piano and Violin, K. 526 – Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio, violin /James Winn, piano – MSR Classics MS 1305 [Distr. by Albany], 68:02 ****:
Unlike the final string quartets and piano concertos, where there appears to be a trailing off in quality, Mozart in his late violin sonatas goes from strength to strength. Since we’re talking about Mozart, the trailing off in the quartets and concertos is only relative; they’re still plenty fine works, but it does seem as though Mozart’s inspiration was waning toward the end of each cycle. Not so with the violin sonatas. First, there was the matter of money. With the success of Sonata K. 454 in 1784, Mozart realized that violin sonatas were ready currency. Following the publication of his last sonata, K. 526, he asked his publisher for an advance on future sonatas, fully expecting to turn out more. Hurting for money as he was in the late 1780s, Mozart rushed this last violin sonata into print just a month after its composition, something that was rare for him.
Then there is the matter of Mozart’s increasing mastery, and indeed reinvention, of the violin sonata as an art form. While the late sonatas were still published as sonatas for piano and violin, by K. 454 Mozart was writing genuine violin sonatas, works in which the violin was fully the equal of the piano, not merely following the piano’s lead. This being the case, Mozart apparently took increasing interest in the genre and increasing pride in the fruit of his labors.
These sonatas are different enough in format and character for them to make an attractive program unto themselves. K. 454 commences with a noble, Olympian Largo introduction before the spirited Allegro. The finale of a K. 481 is a memorable set of variations, a form that Mozart excelled at. K 526 is the sunniest of all, with a dancing first movement and a fairly skipping Presto finale, this despite the supposition that the work was written to honor recently deceased Karl Abel, who had been a London colleague of Mozart’s idol, J. C. Bach. If Mozart was in mourning, it doesn’t show. All these sonatas have poised, deeply expressive slow movements that Mozart could have patented.
In spite of the hokey album title and the vamped-up (but admittedly attractive) photo of Ms. Sant’Ambrogio on the cover, these dates with Mozart go very well; the pair seem to hit it off together. Sant’Ambrogio is an experienced chamber player who also served as concertmaster of the San Antonio Symphony for a number of years. Her tone is dead-on and unwavering, and she shades this music with a practiced hand. James Winn, who has appeared with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center is an excellent partner; for a guy who’s reportedly a champion of new music, he understands this old music thoroughly and brings as much light and shade to it as Ms. Sant’Ambrogio does.
The recording—made in a church in Reno where both musicians teach at the University of Nevada—favors the violin. It has real presence of the proverbial “right there in the room with you” kind. Unfortunately, the piano is rendered in muted tones, and I don’t think it’s either the fault of Mr. Winn or his Steinway. I wish it were otherwise; these performances deserve first-rate sound. Still, this is a very recommendable survey of Mozart’s finest works for violin.
— Lee Passarella