MOZART: Fantasie in c minor; Sonata No. 14 and No. 13 – Menahem Pressler, piano – La Dolce Volta 

MOZART: Fantasie in c minor, K. 475; Sonata No. 14 in c minor, K. 457; Sonata No. 13 in B-flat Major, K. 333 – Menahem Pressler, piano – La Dolce Volta LDV 34, 76:38 (9/8/17) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

Menahem Pressler’s latest installment of his Mozart sonata-cycle brings gracious pleasures at every turn.

I recall having first heard the first, few measures of the Mozart 1785 C Minor Fantasie played not by some legendary concert artist, but by veteran actress Lillian Gish in the 1960 John Huston film, The Unforgiven, in which the music meant to dispel the attacking Kiowas’ magic.  The eerie opening bars—first in unison and then in chromatic steps of F-sharp-G-A-flat—made a singularly dire impression on me then, as now, in this October-November 2016 recording by Pressler, which adds to his Mozart sonata survey. The piece proceeds in a series of alternating tempos, with some bold modulations that embrace D Major, B-flat Major, and B minor. But the unnerving pathos of the work proves most impressive, since its tragic affect does not find relief in the placid sections. Pressler (b. 1923) captures the expressive qualities of this audacious work—its constant application of a Lydian fourth—without false inflection or cloy sentimentality. The music evolves both with a sense of fragility and impetuous violence, simultaneously pre-Romantic and an offshoot of the Bach sons.

The C Minor Sonata (1784) at almost every moment seems to beg for Beethoven to appear. What might have been a simple, Alberti bass suddenly accompanies an assertive, poignantly expansive, dramatic procession, Largo e sostenuto: Allegro con fuoco. An obsessive quality soon pervades the repeated opening and its repetitions, easily suggestive of Beethoven’s Op. 13 Pathetique Sonata in the same key. The section in A-flat of the ensuing Un poco Adagio seems a direct predecessor for the Beethoven opus. The last movement, Molto allegro, seduces us with its early simplicity, emotion but rife with pregnant silences, until we realize how melancholy the figures have become. A rondo in name only, the last movement conveys a bitterness enclosed in classical procedures which, in retrospect, reminds me more of Brahms.

Pressler closes his program with the genial 1783 Sonata in B-flat Major, K. 333. This work, too, has its darker undertones as the opening appoggiaturas yield by the degree of a seventh to a secondary theme and a development section in minor. Pressler executes the syncopated figures in the right hand with fluency. The sixteenth notes gain in restlessness, while the secondary theme appears, impish and beguiling, in a kind of alla musette. The music grows larger, much in the same way the Piano Concerto, K. 503 assumes epic proportions. The Andante cantabile under Pressler moves in a leisurely, patrician pace. The key element lies in the singing character of the melodic line, one step away from the Chopin ideal of keyboard lyricism. The resonance of the line—Pressler’s Steinway beautifully captured by Denis Vautrin—possesses an allure that rings with Mozart’s genius for color chords. The Allegretto grazioso quite disarms us by virtue of it canny, “concerto” effects that include a cadenza. The right hand literally executes coloratura runs while the main line cavorts in a stately gavotte. Here is music that justifies whatever optimism we may still harbor in these troubled times.

—Gary Lemco

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