Notes and Editorial Reviews
Pianos Sonatas: in B?,
Adagio in b,
Rondo in D,
Fantasy in c,
Victor Rosenbaum (pn)
FLEUR DE SON 58001 (79:32)
This is my first encounter with pianist Victor Rosenbaum, but he is no stranger
to these pages. Susan Kagan reviewed his Bridge recording of Beethoven’s last three sonatas in
28:5 and his more recent Fleur de Son CD of Schubert’s great B?-Sonata in 32:1, both of which received fairly high marks. No doubt, Rosenbaum is an artist who should be better known. He studied with both Rosina Lhevinne and Leonard Shure, impressive credentials to have on one’s résumé; as a renowned teacher himself, Rosenbaum has given master classes at a number of prestigious conservatories, in addition to serving as visiting professor of piano at the Eastman School and guest teacher at Juilliard. He is on the faculty of the Mannes College of Music, the New England Conservatory, where he formerly chaired the piano department, and the Longy School of Music, where he served as director and president from 1985 to 2001.
The five works Rosenbaum has chosen for his Mozart recital make for a well-integrated and satisfying program. The Adagio, K 540, with which the disc opens is an unusual piece for Mozart. He wrote other stand-alone Adagios, but this one seems to have been special enough that when he entered it in his catalog on March 19, 1788, he added the notation “in H moll” (“in B Minor”). This takes on added significance in light of the fact, according to
All Music Guide
, that not only was B Minor a rare choice for the composer, but he used it only one other time in the Adagio movement from his Flute Quartet, K 285.
Hard to believe though that might be, it seems to be true. But come to think of it, of all Beethoven’s works with an opus number, not a single one is in B Minor, and only one unnumbered work is, the Allegretto for piano, WoO 61. It’s kind of curious when you stop to think that B Minor was not shunned by Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, and other Baroque composers. The shunning seems to have started later in the 18th century. Not one of Haydn’s symphonies is in B Minor and only one of his piano sonatas and two of his string quartets are. Of course, there are notable later examples—Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony; Chopin’s Third Sonata; Liszt’s Sonata; Dvo?ák’s Cello Concerto; Brahms’s Piano Rhapsody, op. 79/1, Clarinet Quintet, and two or three of his solo piano pieces; Saint-Saëns’s Violin Concerto No. 3; and, of course, Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony—but there’s something about B Minor that seems to have had a “Keep Away” sign painted on it. Beethoven called it “the black key,” and Italian theorist Francesco Galeazzi (1758–1819) deemed B Minor “not suitable for music in good taste.” Oh well, there goes the neighborhood, Virginia, what with Bach’s B-Minor Mass moving in next door.
Apparently Mozart wasn’t fazed by Galeazzi’s opinion, assuming he knew of it, when he wrote this spectral Adagio, K 540, with its wraithlike chord progressions. Rosenbaum conveys the music’s disembodied character without allowing the tone of his instrument to go pale or white, instead playing the role of necromancer to summon the spirits from the netherworld.
The D-Major Rondo, K 485, is the earliest of Mozart’s three such works for solo piano, the other two being K 494 and K 511. It’s a tuneful, good-natured, justly popular piece, one the composer based on a theme he borrowed from J. C. Bach.
The B?-Major Sonata, K 333, is No. 13 in the numbering scheme of Mozart’s piano sonatas. The dating of it has long been a bit sticky, but the latest research now gives the piece’s composition date as late 1783, which would make it contemporaneous with the “Linz” Symphony. It’s not a complicated work. The first movement is textbook sonata-allegro form, and the mood is Mozart at his liveliest and most buoyant. The second movement, frankly, is not one of Mozart’s more inspired slow movements. It seems to go on a bit too long for its own good, no fault of Rosenbaum’s playing.
It’s the final movement, Allegretto grazioso, where, formally, Mozart goes a bit off the rails. It starts out as a fairly typical sonata-rondo, but somewhere along the line it seems to take a turn toward a theme with variations, the main rondo theme being subjected to so many rapid shifts between major and minor and commingled with so much developmental and decorative passagework that one tends to lose the sense of the rondo element. Stylistically, the movement sounds close to the type of fizzy finales familiar from the composer’s piano concertos.
Rosenbaum places the Fantasy in C Minor, K 475, and the Sonata in C Minor, K 457, next to each other on the disc for good reason. Though the Fantasy can stand on its own as an independent work, it was published together with the sonata in 1785, and it has been speculated that Mozart may have intended the Fantasy as a free-wheeling, free-form preamble to the sonata. The musical evidence may even support such a theory, since the outline of the sonata’s opening motive is somewhat similar to the main motive of the Fantasy, but the idea of mating a 14-minute improvisatory-sounding fantasia with a formally conventional three-movement sonata would be highly unusual, if not unprecedented in Mozart’s output. What sort of hybrid creature would it be?
The recording, made in February 2008 in Jordan Hall at Boston’s New England Conservatory, captures Rosenbaum’s Steinway in an extremely lifelike acoustic setting. You’re close enough to the piano that you could be Rosenbaum’s page turner, yet, at the same time, there’s enough of surrounding air and atmosphere that you could be sitting back a ways in a front-row center seat. This means that any imperfections in Rosenbaum’s fingering or pedaling technique, any unevenness in tone, and any questionable smudges would be instantly perceived, yet none is to be heard in nearly 80 minutes of magnificent playing.
Rosenbaum’s Mozart may not satisfy the tastes of those who prefer to hear this music performed on period instruments, but I can assure the reader that the pianist is not one to indulge in a romantic style of playing. I followed the scores as I listened to the CD, and without fail, Rosenbaum’s readings were tasteful, stylish, and true. A beautiful and highly recommended release.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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