Recital Review Print

Rediscovering Performance Practices

September 14, 2006 - Durham, NC:

Samuel Breene is an established Baroque violinist and a Duke musicology doctoral candidate whose dissertation concerns the performance practices of Mozart's time as expressed in his violin sonatas. In this concert, he demonstrated the results of his research both in his performance of four of these sonatas and in certain "body language" that he has determined from various treatises and descriptions from the period. Duke pianist Randall Love accompanied Breene on the fortepiano.

Breene chose sonatas from three different periods in Mozart's life. The Sonatas in E-flat Major, K.302, and in e minor, K.304, belong to a group of six that Mozart began in Mannheim in early 1778 and finished in Paris a few months later, where they were published as Op. 1. He dedicated them to Maria Elizabeth, Electress of the Palatinate – one of his endless attempts to improve his job prospects in order to escape from Salzburg and his strict boss, the Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo. As with most of Mozart's works in minor keys, the Sonata K.304 does, as Alfred Einstein described it, "spring from the most profound depths of emotion." Breene expressed the brooding mood of this work with sensitivity.

Mozart composed the Sonata in G Major, K.379, in Vienna early in 1781, while in the entourage of Colloredo who was visiting the city. According to Mozart's letter to his father, he composed the Sonata between 11 and 12 the night before a performance for the Archbishop, and, while the violinist had his part written out, Mozart, at the piano, performed from memory, with blank pages before him. He had no time to write the part down. The sonata became one of a group of six he dedicated to one of his amorous students in Vienna, Josepha Auernhammer, an act that gave his father apoplexy. But a good student with a well-to-do father had to be cultivated.

Mozart composed the fourth Sonata of this evening, in B-flat Major, K.454, in 1784 for Italian violinist Regina Strinasacchi, and again his pages were blank at the premiere. Except this performance was before Emperor Joseph II, who saw the apparently empty pages with his opera glass and insisted on examining them.

Mozart's violin sonatas come from a period of transition between sonatas for keyboard and solo instrument and solo instrument and keyboard. The difference between the two designations affects the nature of the two parts as well as the question of dominance during performance. The first three sonatas on the program were published as "For harpsichord or fortepiano with the accompaniment of a violin," the last as "For pianoforte and violin." Yet, this was definitely Breene's concert, and Love kept a lower profile when the two played simultaneously.

Trying to recreate the performance practice and mannerisms from Mozart's time is a dicey proposition. Breene, playing with some ornamentation and without vibrato, gave what seemed to us convincing performances. Vibrato can cover a multitude of intonation sins; the lack of it exposes the player, and Breene experienced occasional lapses.

What was missing from the performance was an explanation of Breene's approach to the music. Since these sonatas are part of his doctoral dissertation (the provisional title of which is "Mozart's Violin Sonatas and the Gestures of Embodiment: The Subjectivities of Performance Practice"), some discussion from the stage of what he was trying to achieve or prove would have been invaluable. For example, only after talking with him at the conclusion of the concert were we able to understand that Breene's very stance and movements represented part of the recreation.