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In 1781 when the Archbishop of Salzburg’s servant dismissed Mozart with “a kick up the backside,” as Mozart famously wrote his father, he found himself overjoyed to be in music-mad Vienna. But like a present-day father whose son quits a steady job at a hedge fund to launch his own start-up, Leopold was worried. Secure music appointments were beginning to be less numerous; the fickle Viennese public could blow hot and cold; and public concerts by subscription, the standard mode at the time, were matters of chance. The brilliant piano sonatas and concertos that poured from Mozart’s imagination don’t speak today about whether they came in good times or bad. The sonatas have in common, however, that they were meant for private performances before a cultivated audience. It’s surprising to learn that private settings dominated Beethoven’s time also. He heard only one of his 32 piano sonatas performed in public.

The sequence of three sonatas catalogued as K 330–332 is overshadowed by the middle one, K 331, and its Rondo alla turca finale, but the first in the series, Sonata No. 10, is popular enough to be featured in a movie I somehow missed, Sparky’s Magic Piano. It would aid the theory of evolution in music if we could point to how much Mozart was challenged to grow after he arrived in Vienna, where accomplished pianists were in abundance, but in fact the dating of these sonatas has been in doubt. First they were ascribed to the late 1770s in Paris, and although the settled date is now 1783, it’s not certain if Mozart wrote them in Vienna or on a visit to Salzburg to introduce his wife Constanze to Leopold.

For listeners, the musicology of these pieces is less important than performance style, and the major dividing line is between period practice and the stubbornly surviving traditional Romantic style. Mozart’s publisher advertised these sonatas as suitable for “clavecin ou piano,” attesting to the co-existence of the harpsichord and the fortepiano. (Beethoven would be the first composer, his biographers note, who solely focused on the piano from the start.) A performer with period inclinations can avoid any expression not marked by Mozart, relying on the harpsichord’s absence of diminuendo, crescendo, and legato. Historically, the piano triumphed because of those features, which gives an opening for highly expressive Mozart, which for all we know he might have recognized.

The Moscow-born pianist Evgeni Koroliov delivers bold, authoritative playing that comes as a bit of a surprise given that his extensive discography—this is Vol. 18 in Tacet’s Koroliov Edition—features so much Bach. Now 68, Koroliov has been based in Hamburg as a teacher since 1978, and although he doesn’t use much crescendo or dimenuendo, neither does he favor the slightest détaché. As warm waves of sound pour over you, it’s easy to close your eyes and imagine you’re hearing Claudio Arrau. The only concession to period style I could hear lies in Koroliov’s perfectly even touch, which thanks to his musicality doesn’t become mechanical.

Reviewing the pianist’s first Mozart sonata album from 2007 on Profil, Burton Rothleder notes the same characteristics: “His approach to Mozart is closer to that of Daniel Barenboim than to that of András Schiff or Mitsuko Uchida, which is to say that there is a distinct Beethovenian component in his attack”(Fanfare 30:6). That’s enough to tell you if you’re going to enjoy this accomplished recital or shake your head in pity. The earlier disc included Sonata No. 11, but the two that surround it are equally beautiful, gracious, and melodic. More complex and ambitious is Sonata No. 13, K 333, which the program note informs us is almost concerto-like in its finale, featuring even a short cadenza. In fact, with this comment in mind, I could practically hear the orchestral accompaniment to a ravishing solo part that ventures into the domain of the professional pianist outside the environs of the salon.

After the annus mirabilis of 1784, Mozart’s piano writing rose to an unexcelled level, and Koroliov gives us two contrasting Rondos that are equally masterful—the cheerful Rondo in D Major, K 485, which is actually not listed as a rondo by Mozart and has more kinship to a sonata movement, and the sublime Rondo in A Minor, K 511, a searching Andante that does what is usually ascribed to early Beethoven, remaining within the Classical mode while expanding into bolder areas of feeling and harmony. Koroliov’s Beethovenian side isn’t exaggerated here, in two readings that are musically quite satisfying, like everything else on the program. Excellent recorded sound and readable program notes.

Huntley Dent

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