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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
The Complete Works for Piano, Vol. 1

Sonatas: 1 in C K.279, 2 in F K.280, 3 in B flat K.281, 4 in E flat K.282, 5 in G K.283
Joyce Hatto (piano)
Recorded 2nd-3rd January 1995 at the Concert Artist Studios, Cambridge, UK

Readers of this web site will be well aware that, starting some time in the 1990s, Joyce Hatto has been steadily recording a daunting proportion of the classical-romantic piano repertoire for the extraordinary and rather mysterious Concert Artist/Fidelio Recordings company. The pity of it is that precious few people who donít read this site will be aware of it, for this is a company which has eschewed, or been snubbed by (I donít know which) the major distribution outlets, the principal publicity channels and the longest-established musical journals, with the result that the wider public has lost out on some major recording projects, not only those of Joyce Hatto herself but also (just to name one) an extensive documentation of the later art of the fascinating Italian pianist Sergio Fiorentino.

The present disc is the first in a complete cycle of Mozartís works for piano. I have been sent the first five of these, consisting of the sonatas, and, since they are issued as separate CDs, have elected to deal with them in this way.

Fairly recently I reviewed a box of the Mozart Sonatas, Fantasias and Rondos played by Alicia de Larrocha. This same box got a dusty five-line dismissal from a certain august journal in Great Britain but I much appreciated it, to the extent of requesting "bargain of the month" status for it. I donít regret that recommendation, but now what about Joyce Hatto?

Firstly the recording quality itself, since I felt that some of Hattoís Brahms and Chopin recordings were a little lacking in range. This same sort of body is hardly required for Mozart but in any case I felt these were better, though the level is rather low (I had to turn the volume considerably higher than usual, so this might be a problem if you want to hear them on a small CD-player). The sound given to Larrocha is more forward and brightly lit, a little aggressive in comparison, though I didnít notice this when I listened to them on their own. These matters could affect our perception of the performances themselves; however, I am convinced that each artist has found a producer and engineer with the sensitivity to give her a sound quality which in some ways reflects her own sound. It may be a penny-in-the-slot action to suggest that the Spanish artist will give us bright-lit colours under the hot noonday sun while the English artist works in mellower, more pastel colours, and the difference may reflect their individual psyches rather than their nationalities, but certainly the difference is there, so after reading this you may already be half way towards making your choice.

I found it interesting that Larrocha seemed to treat the first group of sonatas (the five here plus one more) with an ear for their roots in the forte-piano music of Johann Christian Bach, or even going further back still to Scarlatti. This meant that her faster movements, though not particularly swift, had a brilliance which might have sounded brittle were it not for the warm tone she unfailingly produces, and the slower movements, notably that of K.283, avoided any proto-romantic leanings.

Hatto, on the other hand, finds the mature Mozartian voice in these sonatas. She gives the afore-mentioned Andante of K.283 a gentle, flowing innocence and generally takes a shade more time over each movement, a question of letting it breathe more freely than of actually playing more slowly in many cases. In her gentler way, however, she also finds much distinction of touch and phrasing. In the concluding Rondeau of K.281, for instance, her rhythm has an infectious lilt which leaves Larrocha sounding just slightly stolid.

I do not wish to make too much of these differences and if you bought the Larrocha set you can be well content with it. I also have an idea that the competition will be closer in the later volumes, since Larrocha brought great stature and distinction to the maturer works. In many cases, passing between them, I wondered if there was any point in trying to find one "better" than the other. In the opening Adagio of K.282 for instance, the only Mozart piano sonata which has its slow movement placed first, they both just had me thinking what an extraordinarily beautiful piece of music this is.

However, the little differences do seem to me to mount up to one big one. This music tends to have schoolroom associations still, and not to be loved in quite the same way the concertos are loved. If this is so for you, then I think Joyce Hatto is just that little bit more likely to make you love them. She doesnít actually "do" much with the music, she just plays it with a simplicity and a serenity which made me think of Clara Haskil. That good? Iíll have to come back on that when Iíve reached the end of the cycle.

In any case, it will not have escaped you that the Larrocha cycle has been produced by one of the "great" companies Ė BMG-RCA Ė whose distribution channels will see that music-lovers all round the world are aware of its existence and will have no difficulty in obtaining it. Out of every hundred who will buy that set, I wonder how many will even know that the various alternatives on offer include a cycle at least as good by an English lady called Joyce Hatto? Such are the ways of the world.

Christopher Howell

 Volume 2 Volume 3 Volume 4 Volume 5

The Concert Artist Catalogue

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