Jean Muller’s wonderful Mozart performances grace the Elbphilharmonie

GermanyGermany Mozart: Jean Muller (piano). Kleiner Saal, Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg, 1.2.2020 (CC)

Jean Muller

Mozart – Piano Sonata in C major, K330; Fantasie in C minor, K475; Piano Sonata in D major, K311; Piano Sonata in A major, K331; Piano Sonata in B flat major, K333

The German record company Hänssler seems to enjoy working on complete cycles at the moment. The Luxembourg-born pianist Jean Muller is in the process of recording a traversal of the Mozart Sonatas, while elsewhere on the label Martino Tirimo has just released complete Beethoven Solo Piano Works (an exhaustive edition that spans some 16 CDs).

The recordings released so far in Muller’s cycle (just the first two volumes) have boded extremely well, revealing a pianist of huge musicality and equally huge talent. Interestingly, it appears Muller is even finer in a live situation (and the good news is that there were microphones at this concert). The full standing ovation he received was absolutely deserved. Reviews of Muller’s two discs so far can be found on MusicWeb International here (Volume One) and here  (Volume Two).

The performance took place in the small hall of the Elbphilharmonie. The edifice of the Elbphilharmonie itself is magnificent, with a wave-like roof and a glass façade: see here for an interactive view. The ‘Kleiner Saal’ is shown on the left, seating up to 550 people (roughly midway in capacity between the South Bank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room). One enters the building via an incredible 82-metre ‘tube’ (a bit like the very long travellators at Waterloo on the Jubilee line, but slanting upwards and much, much cooler). The building also houses a full hotel, The Westin, whose achingly stylish lobby is situated on the eighth floor.

Jean Muller clearly wishes to express the full Mozart experience, including that composer’s humour in all its manifested forms. Perhaps that is part of a wider aspect of Muller’s playing; in his grasp of the importance of gesture, it was as if, in K330, Mozart was writing in the lineage of Affektenlehre. Mulller’s cantilena in the Andante cantabile reminded us that more often than not these central panels are like opera arias, while the contrasts in the finale spoke of sheer joy in the act of living life.

The C minor Fantasie has a performance history of being conjoined with the C minor Sonata; it makes for even greater effect as a stand-alone piece. The theme is related to the so-called ‘Royal Theme’ of Bach’s Musikalischer Opfer, a piece introduced to Mozart via Baron Gottfried van Swieten. Muller’s performance was commanding, and ever gripping. In contrast, the D major Sonata exuded bright light, the virtuoso aspect terrific, a perfectly planned close of the first half of the concert. The near-symphonic first movement contrasted with the beautiful love duet of the central Andante con espressione, while the Rondeau finale was as fresh as could be, that splendid clarity paying huge dividends.

The famous saying by Artur Schnabel that Mozart is too easy for children but too difficult for artists was brought viscerally to mind in Muller’s performance of the famous A major sonata, K331, with its gently ululating Andante grazioso first movement. Muller projected a perfect sense of calm and simplicity; but how fine also was his technique, the cross-handed effects perfectly judged (in both first and second movements), the minor variation absolutely heart-breaking, the ‘Rondo alla turca’ fleet yet always graceful.

Finally, the great B flat Sonata, K333. Clarity was the defining factor here, the opening descending scale as natural as could be. Muller’s harmonic awareness in projecting the first movement’s structure was married to his ever-musical delivery, the development splendidly exploratory. The central Andante cantabile, too, exuded heartfelt simplicity, while the finale’s notated cadenza seemed a perfectly natural and logic culmination of the music’s process.

Performed on a fabulous Steinway whose sound seemed to carry perfectly in the finely-crafted acoustic, this was a remarkable recital. With such an enthusiastic audience encores were inevitable: Brahms’s Wiegenlied, Op.49/4 arranged by Godowsky and a Chopin Nocturne, the posthumously published No.20 in C sharp minor, its melody infinitely poignant: two very different night pieces to send us off to our beds. Perfect.

Colin Clarke

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