Saturday 16th April's audience received the full advantages of the chronological programming of the sonatas in Leon McCawley's Mozart Marathon at Kings Place this weekend. The five sonatas in the programme span some of the most critical events and emotional highs and lows in Mozart's life, reflected in this music.

© Benjamin Ealovega
© Benjamin Ealovega

The period of change documented in these sonatas begins with Mozart's resignation from his position at court in Salzburg in 1777. He travelled to Germany and France in search of work, accompanied by his mother. They settled in first in Mannheim. Mozart's Sonatas K309 and K311 from this time display the influence of the style of composition prevalent there, with its emphasis on unpredictable dynamic contrasts. McCawley used the swift alternating loud and quiet dynamics to create a beautiful sense of ebb and flow in Sonata K311. "Mannheim rockets" (ascending arpeggio phrases) and "Mannheim sighs" (phrases built from falling two note patterns) were delivered with delightful crescendos and diminuendos. The numerous erasures and revisions on the autographs of Mozart's scores, and his letters, demonstrate that the articulation marked is very intentional, and chosen to create particular effects.

In the sonata K309, McCawley's attention to Mozart's carefully indicated contrasts between legato and staccato gave the playful atmosphere of the first and third movements life and bounce. The recital was full of contrasts, not only those afforded by Mozart's dynamic markings or articulation, or those created by the different moods of the sonatas reflecting the events in his life. On each repeated section McCawley cast the repeat in a different light - warmer and more expansive, brighter in the decoration, or drawing out a different aspect of the music. Where individual phrases echoed each other, or answered each other, they would receive subtly different characterisation, creating a constant sense of living dialogue within the music.

The second movement of Sonata K309 is unique in Mozart's work, containing the only known instance of a musical portrait of a real person. The sonata was written for Rosa Cannabich, the daughter of a friend in Mannheim. Mozart spent many evenings socialising with the family and got to know them well. Mozart said that he had written the second movement so that it would be a musical portrait of Rosa, a girl he found "pretty and charming, very intelligent … serious" and a girl of few words - but those she said were "delightful and friendly". The movement reflects these characteristics in a portrait that uses a few charming themes, which persistently build and return in a new light, using new decoration, like thoughts being carefully developed and communicated. The portrait was deemed successful by her friends, who said the music was "just like her". McCawley's unsentimental interpretation created a respectful and affectionate portrait, with no hint of caricature.

While enjoying a busy period of teaching and commissions in Mannheim, Mozart did not secure a permanent position. The decision to travel on to Paris seeking work, with his mother accompanying him rather than returning home, turned out to be ill-fated. In 1778 she fell ill and died. McCawley gave the A minor sonata, produced during this period, an impressively consistent interpretation across the three movements. The famous opening chords and dotted rhythms were sudden and insistent. Spaces in the music were used to create yearning sighs, and to create effects like flurries of wind and snow in the passages with tortuous runs. The returns to the theme were chilling - anxious music looping without finding a way out. The opening of the second movement was perfectly judged to preserve the mood. Poignant simplicity in the first rendition of the theme, followed by emotional development where each return of the theme was increasingly comforting. In the third movement McCawley preserved the sense of breathlessness, urgency and momentum of the short phrases, but also unified them into a passionate aria.

After this low point in Mozart's experience, failing to find a position and losing his mother, the following years brought some of the high points of his career. He wrote two operas that were very successful in 1781, and he got married in 1782. The Sonatas K330 and K331 come from this period. For Sonata K330, McCawley created an atmosphere unique in the programme. The concert pianos available to Mozart from 1780 employed a mute, a thin strip of cloth between the hammer and the strings. This would be used during passages in K330 to create an ethereal effect that is fundamentally different from that achieved by the una corda pedal on the modern piano. McCawley's answer was to create a mysterious, uncannily intimate tone without relying on una corda.

Throughout the recital, the characterisation of all patterns and melodies received equal attention. The traditional patterns used by Mozart such as broken chords were always much more than an accompanying texture. McCawley gave each one a voice and character in its own right, so that they provided shape and impetus, often creating an expressive crescendo wave preparing the way for the entry of the melody, or playing a softly singing choir supporting the soloist above. Whenever there were several parts simultaneously requiring contrasting articulation, these were dexterously delivered by McCawley without compromise.

The last movement of Sonata K331, popularly known as the Turkish Rondo or Turkish March, is a well-known piece. It imitates the sound of Turkish Janissary bands, a style that in Mozart's day was so popular that pianos would even have a pedal that triggered bells and/or a bass drum. McCawley's rendition of the Alla Turca was an atmospheric marvel. Tastefully interpreted, the contrast between the dance of the opening theme and the ringing imitation of the Turkish band in the forte passages was bold, strong and dramatic.

*****