In a similar vein to the previous evening’s rather German-orientated “Grosse Streichquartette” concert given by the Artemis Quartet, tonight’s mozart@augsburg concert contained Beethoven piano sonatas interspersed with recitations: a “Sea of Harmony”. It was also to be the last of the festival’s concerts that I was to experience this year. The recital was performed in the hall of the Fugger Castle in Kirchheim, still owned by the Fuggers today (a family closely associated with the Mozarts as a result of Amadeus’ great-grandfather, Franz, living in the social settlement – the Fuggerei – established by Jakob Fugger in 1521). The hall of the Fugger Castle is, on one hand, grand and impressive, with a large fireplace, framed art on the walls and a high, elaborately decorated ceiling. However, in some ways – particularly because of the plain white walls and dark wooden panels – the hall also incorporates a simplicity and perhaps even an intimacy that mirrored the dichotomy between Beethoven’s sensitive and turbulent qualities explored this evening through his sonatas and contemporary readings.

Sebastian Knauer at mozart@augsburg
Sebastian Knauer at mozart@augsburg

The concert began with a recitation by the actress Hannelore Elsner, who read an extract from one of Bettina von Arnim’s writings, a writer, poet and close friend of Beethoven’s. Fifteen years the composer’s junior, von Arnim provoked the warmest and most sensitive of qualities from him upon their encounter and she herself recalled it many years later with the utmost affection and understanding. Her writings, compiled for this concert by Wolfgang Knauer from a variety of sources, intersected the movements of the first two sonatas played, whilst the final sonata, “Moonlight”, remained unbroken. Though unable to understand the German recitations, I could nevertheless appreciate – to an extent – the poising, pace and personal tone drawn from the writings by Elsner. The silent engagement apparent from the audience offered an additional clue as to the extent of their immersion in her oration.

Musically what struck me most about the recital was the assuredness and deliberateness of Sebastian Knauer’s Beethoven performances. Expressive, yes, but avoiding sentimentality (particularly in the first movement of the “Moonlight” sonata), he gave what I found to be a very refreshing and non-indulgent reading of all three works. Most notably, I found that his choice of tempi and very linear performances allowed for the fluctuations of mood to reveal themselves naturally, such as in the outer movements of the Sonata in C minor Op. 10 no. 1, and the final movement of the D minor “Tempest”. Again, in the opening of the “Moonlight” sonata, his consistent and somewhat quicker-than-usual tempo avoided over-romanticising the work. He seemed to carry this attitude further within this particular sonata, beginning each subsequent movement without a break and infecting the Presto with an unyielding metric and rhythmic drive that, I find, are vital to this movement’s excitement.

Knauer’s variety of tone was also something I found of interest: his spiky and nimble Op. 10 third movement, for example, contrasted markedly with the introductory arpeggios of the “Tempest”: the constituent notes seemed to exist both on their own terms and as part of a rich, greater whole. And a minor point, but one worth mentioning given how famous the first movement of the “Moonlight” is: I was interested at one point to hear Knauer add weight to the inner triplets in order to emphasise the dissonant ninth between the melody and accompaniment. I was delighted with this approach, though this could perhaps have been executed with a little more subtlety.

As a Beethoven interpreter, Knauer struck a fine and stimulating balance between “interpreting” or affecting the music and in allowing it to declare itself on its own terms. I found that he certainly did not play it safe with the music – some of his tempi were ferociously fast – yet, on the other hand, he did not allow the briskness and energy of some movements, contrasted with the warmth of the slower movements, to stray into a bipolar caricature of the tempestuous composer.