“Hamelin’s legend will grow — right now there is no one like him.” — The New Yorker

Marc-André Hamelin’s 2015 appearance at 92Y prompted The New York Times to ask, “Is it possible for a pianist to be too good?” Find out when he returns with an all-Mozart program of brilliant rondos and sonatas, drawn from his critically-acclaimed Mozart double-album, released by Hyperion last year.

Marc-André Hamelin, piano

MOZART
Sonata in E-flat major, K. 282
Rondo in A minor, K. 511
Sonata in D major, K. 576
Sonata in C major, K. 545 
Rondo in D major, K. 485 
Sonata in G major, K. 283

 

Corresponding Class: Sun, Nov 6: Mozart at the Keyboard

► Marc-André Hamelin plays Mozart’s Rondo in D major (Hyperion)


► Marc-André Hamelin plays Mozart’s Sonata in C major, I. Allegro

Explore the Music

(Click the names below to expand info.)

MOZART: Sonata in E-flat major, K. 282

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Born in Salzburg, January 27, 1756; died in Vienna, December 5, 1791
Sonata in E-flat major, K. 282

Composed in 1774; 13 minutes

In Mozart’s day, solo piano compositions weren’t really intended for public performance. They could be composed as offerings to influential patrons, or study pieces in which a composer (or their student) could grapple with form, harmonic procedure, melodic development, and voice-leading in a relatively private environment. It was in the piano concerto, not the sonata, that composer-pianists like Mozart really showed their performance skill in a public forum. Still, as a youth Mozart performed some of his own piano sonatas in recital, mainly for smaller aristocratic audiences.

With his first attempts at piano sonatas, a set of six composed in Münich in 1774 (K. 279 – K. 284), Mozart appears to follow the lightness of the prevailing galante style. These sonatas combine the elegance of Italian rococo composition with the clarity and lyrical balance of J. C. Bach, whom Mozart had befriended some years earlier in London. Though he had earlier written some shorter pieces for harpsichord, these sonatas are Mozart’s first works written specifically for pianoforte, an instrument he quickly favored after hearing the richer and more versatile sound of the new Stein pianos.

Even in these early sonatas, though, Mozart felt free to adjust the accepted conventions of style and technique that directed lesser composers. Sometimes his departures from the norm were almost imperceptible, but occasionally they were openly defiant. With the opening of the E-flat major Sonata, K. 282, for example, Mozart signals a break with tradition by writing a relaxed Adagio movement instead of an expected Allegro. In a loose sonata form, the movement’s opening idea is subtly altered and alluded to obliquely throughout the development, recapitulation and coda.

The Minuet was not typically part of the Classical piano sonata format — it resides more comfortably in symphonies and string quartets. But here Mozart gives an asymmetrically-phrased piano minuet in galante style. It frames a livelier second minuet that exploits the dynamic contrasts available on the fortepiano. The Haydnesque finale that follows is also in sonata form, though with heightened lightness and sparkle, ending the sonata with exactly the kind of popular surface Mozart had so diligently avoided at the start.

Photo: a 1775 Stein piano
© 2016, Luke Howard

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MOZART: Rondo in A minor, K. 511

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Rondo in A minor, K. 511
Composed in 1787; 12 minutes


By the time Mozart wrote his Rondo in A minor, K. 511, in 1787, he was at a turning point in his personal life and career. His next operas would not achieve the same level of popularity with Viennese audiences, interest in his instrumental works was waning, and the recent deaths of close friends and family members rattled his spirit. It was the start of a difficult period in Mozart’s career from which he would never fully recover.

Generally, it’s a risky prospect to correlate a composer’s personal life directly with the emotional tone of their compositions, and no more so than with Mozart, who seemed able to churn out delightful and charming music effortlessly no matter his circumstances. But in the case of the A-minor Rondo, the correlation seems apt. He had not used the key of A-minor for an instrumental composition for nearly nine years — the last time being a sonata composed in Paris when he was lonely, homesick and grieving. The tone in this Rondo is also predominantly melancholy and introspective, even morbid. Some have suggested it foreshadows Chopin in its lyrical concentration and depth of feeling. But as this is Mozart, those moods are combined with an elegance and clarity that only serves to heighten the gravity.

In the opening theme, the appoggiaturas jar painfully with the underlying harmonies, expressing a distinctive heart-hurt. Journeys to the major mode do little to relieve the emotional weight, and the contrasting episodes are only a temporary diversion — they still are rife with the chromatic yearnings that so color the principal theme that recurs throughout and concludes the piece in affecting resignation.

© 2016, Luke Howard

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MOZART: Sonata in D major, K. 576

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Sonata in D major, K. 576
Composed in 1789; 15 minutes


Mozart’s last piano sonata, in D major (K. 576), was dedicated to the Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia. Composed in 1789, it is thought to have originated as one of a set of six “easy” sonatas commissioned by the Princess’s father, King Friedrich Wilhelm II. Some scholars point to the work’s difficulty — it is one of the most technically demanding of Mozart’s sonatas — as evidence that even if it was conceived as an “easy” sonata, it ended up being perhaps beyond the performance abilities of the young Princess. The other five planned sonatas never eventuated.

What is “easy” about this sonata, though, is the manner in which Mozart combines the learned style of counterpoint with a relaxed, popular veneer. The sprightly fanfare in octaves that opens the first movement (Allegro) has sometimes led to this work being nicknamed “The Hunt” or “The Trumpet Sonata.” This motif is developed almost immediately in imitation, and recurs at the start of the second key area as well as in the contrapuntally dense development section.

The Adagio slow movement situates a wistful melody in A-major against a somewhat anxious central section that breaks into conversational counterpoint between the hands. The genial simplicity of the slow movement then gives way to a rondo finale (Allegretto) that might be one of the most difficult sonata movements Mozart ever composed. Beginning with an ingratiating melody in the popular style, it quickly develops into cascades of virtuosic runs and figurations that draw the music out of the realm of the amateur aristocratic performer and more toward virtuoso playing.


Photo: Frederica Charlotte (Josef Friedrich August Darbes)
© 2016, Luke Howard

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MOZART: Sonata in C major, K. 545

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Sonata in C major, K. 545
Composed in 1788; 19 minutes


In 1788, Mozart’s situation had not improved since writing his A-minor Rondo. He was constantly borrowing money from friends, and Austria had entered into a difficult war with Turkey that disinclined his patrons to support his concerts. Mozart’s principal source of income during this period was teaching. And it was during the summer of 1788 that Mozart wrote a little piano sonata for his beginner students, a “sonata facile.” Its stylish refinement and cheer completely belie the composer’s straitened circumstances and Vienna’s preoccupation with war.

The sonata was not published until 1805, gaining added popularity when the main theme was arranged and published in the 1940s with the title, “In an 18th-Century Drawing Room.” It became a kind of archetypal, even clichéd Mozart melody for many listeners.

The opening movement returns to the untroubled Rococo lightness and smaller scale of Mozart’s youthful works. In the Andante that follows, innocence is juxtaposed against a minor-key central episode that glances at melancholy without lingering too deeply. The dancing rondo finale—a miniature that is over almost as soon as it’s underway—rounds out a quintessentially charming work that suggests a composer like Mozart didn’t have to be free of troubles to write trouble-free music.

© 2016, Luke Howard

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MOZART: Rondo in D major, K. 485

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Rondo in D major, K. 485
Composed in 1786; 6 minutes


The term “rondo” is usually understood as a kind of refrain form in instrumental music, with an opening melody that recurs regularly throughout the piece. Single-movement piano rondos were also a popular type of shorter solo composition in the late 18th century. Yet Mozart’s Rondo in D major, K. 485, is not in rondo form at all — it closely resembles a sonata-form movement, which suggests that the term was employed somewhat more flexibly in Mozart’s day.

Mozart composed his piano Rondo in D in early 1786. It bears a dedication “To Mademoiselle Charlotte de W…” whose identity remains unknown, and the work was not published until after the composer’s death. It has since become a favorite of piano students and one of Mozart’s most-performed compositions for solo piano.

The Rondo opens with a simple descending motif in a Scotch-snap rhythm that in its unassuming simplicity allows for a wider range of developmental possibilities. The mood remains consistently affable throughout, even when turning to the minor mode briefly in the recapitulation and when making a surprising feint to B-flat in the coda.

© 2016, Luke Howard

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MOZART: Sonata in G major, K. 283

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Sonata in G major, K. 283
Composed in 1774; 17 minutes


The great early music specialist Wanda Landowska believed that writing for the piano changed Mozart’s conception of form. She observed of the Sonata in G, K. 283, that “the spirited and dynamic character of its first and third movements was enriched by the pianoforte whose sonority was round and full, crisp and grained, and whose bass was ample without being heavy.”

Though the graceful first movement (Allegro) of this sonata presents the pleasing variety expected from an early classical work, Mozart’s interest in innovative form and proportion creates a new kind of balance that departs from galante style. The development section, in particular, is rather short — so short, in fact, that it barely constitutes a section at all and is little more than an interlude between the exposition and recapitulation.

This apparent lack of motivic development is then balanced by a recapitulation that takes some chances. Mozart wilfully ventures into the minor mode early and the musical thread seems to lose its way. It takes the robust octaves of the transition to bring it back on track. The flowing Andante that follows also compensates for the shortness of development in the first movement by including a true development as a contrasting middle section.

The Presto finale, too, might have ruffled those who valued galante reticence in the 1770s. It is lusty, vigorous music, with a lavish dose of folksiness of the kind Haydn liked to introduce in the latter movements of his sonatas and quartets. Acting as a foil to the refinement of the first two movements, it shows genuine good humor instead of the “wan smile” of the Rococo.

© 2016, Luke Howard

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Artist Bios

Marc-André Hamelin, piano

Marc-André Hamelin is ranked among the elite of world pianists for his unrivaled blend of musicianship and virtuosity in the great works of the established repertoire, as well as for his intrepid exploration of the neglected music of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Mr. Hamelin opened his 2016/17 season playing Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Gothenburg Symphony and the Orchestra Philharmonique de Montpellier, followed by concertos with the Indianapolis and Oregon symphonies; a recital at the Gilmore Festival and chamber music in San Francisco. Later this month Mr. Hamelin will travel to China for recitals at the Shanghai Concert Hall and to Berlin for a recital in the Chamber Music Hall. Among his future orchestral engagements this season are the Montreal and Minnesota orchestras; the Bayerische Staatsorchester; the Bologna and NDR Hanover symphonies; and the Warsaw Philharmonic. Other recitals include Chicago, Cleveland, Toronto and Vienna.

A special project for the season will be duo recitals with pianist Leif Ove Andsnes in Europe at Wigmore Hall in London, in Rotterdam and Dublin, and in Italy, and in North America at Seattle, San Francisco, Washington, DC, Beverly Hills, Chicago and New York, appearing at Carnegie Hall on Friday, April 28, 2017. With the Pacifica Quartet, he will premiere his own string quintet on tour, and he will conclude the season as a juror at the Cliburn Piano Competition, for which he has been commissioned to write the compulsory solo work for the contestants.

Mr. Hamelin records exclusively for Hyperion Records. Earlier this year he joined the Takács Quartet to follow up their 2016 Grammy-nominated recording of Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet with a recording of Franck’s Piano Quintet. Other recent releases include an all-Ornstein disc with the Pacifca Quartet, his Mozart album and a recording of Debussy’s Images and Préludes II, He was honored with the 2014 ECHO Klassik Instrumentalist of Year (Piano) and Disc of the Year by Diapason and Classica magazines for his three-disc set of Busoni’s late piano music.

His Hyperion discography of over 50 recordings also includes an album of his own compositions, Hamelin: Études, which received a Grammy nomination (his ninth at the time) and a first prize from the German Record Critics’ Association; the Études are published by Edition Peters. Mr. Hamelin has also recorded concertos and works for solo piano by such composers as Alkan, Godowsky and Medtner.

Born in Montreal and a resident of Boston, Marc-André Hamelin is an Officer of the Order of Canada, a Chevalier de l’Ordre du Québec, and a member of the Royal Society of Canada. His website is marcandrehamelin.com.

Photo: Frank Kaufmann

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