Cotik Explores Mozart’s Violin Sonatas

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MOZART: Violin Sonatas, K. 301-6; K. 296; K. 376-80; K. 454, 481, 526, 547 / Tomás Cotik, vln; Tao Lin, pn / Centaur CRC 3619-22

Following on the heels of his superb CD of Piazzolla’s tangos, violinist Tomás Cotik has tackled the complete violin sonatas of Mozart, due for release on February 2 of this year. Generally speaking, only a handful of these are familiar to most music-lovers; Mozart’s violin sonatas don’t have nearly the currency of his piano sonatas or the violin sonatas of Beethoven, Mendelssohn or Brahms. There’s a reason for this, as in the case of most Mozart. As Arturo Toscanini was famously quoted as saying, Mozart is “always beautiful but always the same…except for the Symphony No. 40. That is great tragedy.”

Proponents of Mozart’s Requiem, Don Giovanni and some of the other symphonies may disagree with Toscanini, but by and large what he said holds true. And it was done by design, on purpose, not because Mozart couldn’t come up with anything more challenging. His goal, as he wrote to his father Leopold, was to create music that sounded pleasing to the masses yet could also hold some appeal for more sophisticated listeners “without their realizing why.” Or as scholar Clifford Eisen, quoted in the booklet for this set, put it, Mozart was “able to manipulate and cajole his listeners, to draw them in and draw them out…not for the sake of self-expression but to allow us to express ourselves.” This was done by the introduction, every half-chorus or so, of out-of-tonality shifts: some chromatically introduced and some moving “sideways” to suddenly remote keys. Of course, he would then run back to the home key so as not to upset the average listener, which is what makes his music rather frustrating for those of us who want more but don’t get it.

Still, the real attractiveness of these pieces stems from the way they’re performed, and Cotik is surely one of their liveliest of interpreters. I’m not sure why he chose Mozart when many sonatas of equal unfamiliarity by other composers are meatier, but it’s true that a set of this magnitude (four CDs) is seldom attempted. Only violinist Bin Huang has done the same (for Vermeer, a relatively new set I haven’t heard), and Cédric Tiberghien is in the process of issuing them, one CD at a time, on Hyperion.

In his hands, they tend to sound like variants of Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata, which is not a bad thing. Both he and pianist Tao Lin (who also accompanied him on the Piazzolla set) give an emphasis to the rhythmic aspects of the music, and in doing so uncovers some dazzling moments. The sudden, slightly louder emphasis by the pianist on the downbeat chord of each measure, for instance, or the upward “swing” of a phrase from the violinist, are constant features of their playing. So too is their emotional involvement, often finding more meat and less potatoes in these scores. The end result is more a reflection on Cotik and his reaction to Mozart’s music than the music itself. In this respect, he put me in mind of Nadia Reisenberg’s legendary performances of the piano concerti or Ronald Brautigam’s superb traversal of the piano sonatas. Listen carefully, for instance, to the way they play the second movement (“Rondo andante grazioso”) of the Sonata K. 302. They utilize a far greater variety of dynamic contrasts than usual, suddenly softening a note or passage or, conversely, attacking a phrase with renewed vigor. This is the very opposite of the “historically-informed” approach to which too many of today’s performers are addicted. And neither does Cotik use constant straight tone on his instrument, or Lin an anemic-sounding fortepiano. This, too, contributes to the music’s effectiveness.

In short, they sound as if they actually LIKE the music.

As one goes through the sonatas, movement by movement, one notices all sorts of little touches such as those noted above. The first movement of the K. 300c Sonata, for instance, is so full of little dynamics touches that one would need a full page just to detail them all. An ex-friend of mine once commented that he thought Mozart was always more expressive in minor keys, and over the years I’ve come to agree with him. He was also more expressive when his major-key works dipped into the minor, as for instance in the K. 305 Sonata. In the latter part of the last movement of the Sonata K. 376, Mozart suddenly plays cat-and-mouse with the listener, stopping the slow downward movement of the two instruments with pregnant pauses, creating a humorous moment in the midst of an otherwise light, buoyant mood.

Indeed, as we roll into CD 3 the sonatas become ever more playful in a challenging way. Their complexities, though subtle, are increased with each passing moment, as is the length of each movement. It is now quite common to find movements lasting anywhere from 6:42 to 10:06 whereas previously an entire two-movement sonata lasted about 10 or 11 minutes. In the “Andante” of the K. 454 sonata, Mozart suddenly changes keys at about 3:30 and in doing so throws inattentive listeners off the harmonic cliff.

The first movement of the Sonata in E-flat, K. 481, also dips into the minor here and there for brief but telling dramatic effects. Again, Cotik and Lin don’t make these moments obvious, but neither do they hide their dramatic effect. During one 20-second stretch beginning at 4:00, Mozart throws in no less than eight key changes, and in fact repeats this effect a little further on! The remaining sonatas aren’t quite that imaginative, but there is a fun little piano flourish in the first movement of the Sonata K. 547, and all the remaining movements are played in an equally lively manner.

Clearly, then, a first-rate set of these sonatas, well worth exploring.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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