Mozart's last piano sonata, K576, is by no means an easy one, as the composer himself once suggested.
Pianist Robert Levin wasted no time in diving into this complex work. In fact, even between movements, there was little pause, resulting in an overall feeling that it was a bit rushed. Levin seemed to approach the work with Beethovenian-like drama. Excessive pedal in places, particularly in the first and third movements, drowned out the melodies with heavy ostinato bass. Even the sweet Adagio lacked the meditative nature one expects of the movement. Rather heavy-handed at times, it could have benefited from a little more lightness of melodic touch.
The arpeggiated left hand of the third movement also swallowed some of the cleanness of the right hand. It was clear that this movement required a certain virtuosity which Levin proved he had with accuracy throughout the sonata, but overall, it could have been a crisper affair. Many of the scalar runs became muddled with a combination of pedal and the acoustics of Queen’s Hall perhaps not being so kind to the piano.
The Beethoven Trio was much more successful as the piano found a complementary balance with cello and clarinet. Levin excelled as a supporting pianist here, more suited to the demands of Beethoven than those of Mozart. Barnaby Robson’s clarinet sang out like a violin. This was perhaps intentional, as the trio was written with the higher register of the clarinet in mind, but often a violin is named as an alternate for the part. The first movement produced some lovely round chords. In the second movement, David Watkin on cello held some simple, clean lines while the piano maintained just enough delicacy to retain its strength still. Lastly, the theme and variations of the third movement showcased Beethoven’s jovial nature with a playful dialogue between all three instruments.
The highlight of the afternoon's performance was Mozart's Sonata for bassoon and cello, featuring Peter Whelan on bassoon and once again, David Watkin on cello. Although it is a rather short sonata, it was a refreshing piece in the programme, particularly the third movement, which showcased the abilities of the bassoon and Whelan’s skill at the instrument. Whelan and Watkin achieved a lovely balance here.
Lastly, there was Mozart’s Quintet in E-flat, with Alec Frank-Gemmil on horn and Robin Williams on oboe. The beauty of this piece lies in a characteristic Mozart trait – a sense of equality between all the players involved. However, this did not always appear to be the case with this performance. Again, whether it was the fault of an overbearing piano, or the acoustics of the hall, or even of a certain heavy-handedness from Levin himself, the first movement was dominated mostly by the piano. Frank-Gemmil's warmth on the horn softened the piece and a dialogue was created as the main themes were passed around between the musicians. A more effective balance was achieved in the second movement's gentle Larghetto. The third movement for some reason lacked a certain energy as despite a promising cadenza-like section toward the end, the movement and thus the entire piece ended quite anti-climatically.
Mozart's Sonata for Bassoon and Cello was a delight and the Beethoven Trio also enjoyable. But unfortunately, the initial and final pieces were not as successful. Whereas Levin's Mozart sonata perhaps displayed too much energetic gusto, the quintet unfortunately did not display enough.
Photo: Robert Levin by Herb Asherman
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