Album Title: Mozart Piano Sonatas - Two-Piano Arrangement by Grieg
Performers: Dena Piano Duo
Label and #: 2L SACD 40
Running time:
August 2006

So Grieg arranged four of Mozart's piano sonatas for two pianos, eh? I should have known forty years ago when I first played the K545. But I didn't. Not until this CD prompted me to blow the dust off my Schirmer Edition and turn the page to the C major Sonata did I discover for the first time that it not only stated clearly at the bottom of the first page of all four sonatas concerned but also on the inside front cover: "Accompaniment for Second Piano by Edvard Grieg, for Nos. 3, 4, 5 and 18 may be found in Schirmer's Library Vol. 1440-1-2-3 respectively". I wonder how many pianists or piano teachers take note of that. Well, the young Norwegian pianist Tina Margareta Nilssen and her former professor at the University of Künste in Berlin, Heide Görtz did. And they recorded exactly those four sonatas here on the Norwegian label 2L.

Let me state two things upfront. First, if you're a purist who thinks Mozart should never be tampered with, this is not for you. Second, despite what I just said, I love this CD so much that I want to convince you to open your mind. I am not a good Mozartean in that I never uphold this composer and his creations as sacrosanct and inviolable like any good Mozartean unquestioningly would. For years I've secretly believed and now openly confess that he's probably the only composer whose works are constantly overrated despite their true intrinsic value not only in the musical realm.

Mozart's music is reportedly administered in numerous cognitive development studies. Whenever the 'Mozart effect' is factored in, the results among those groups are always more encouraging than those without. (Has any group ever assessed the Rossini or Mendelssohn effect? The findings might be more encouraging even.) All this has led to some kind of superstition that keeps snowballing. Purely on musical terms, the Mozart who truly revealed his heart to me composed in the minor keys. When he composed from his mind, surely there are beautiful moments because Mozart did have a beautiful mind. But sacred and inviolable? I think not. Is Mozart holier than Bach or Chopin? Why is it that Busoni's many Bach transcriptions and Godowsky's Studies on Chopin Etudes were/are cheered as act of ingenuity while Grieg's arrangement of Mozart had/have been jeered as sacrilege and sin?

Through his own native musical language, Grieg paid his tribute to Mozart, his role model since childhood, by adding the accompaniment for second piano. In other words, the original Mozart score remains unaltered for the first piano. This is the most effective way to preserve the Mozartean flavour and nobody could have done better than Grieg. In the hands of Busoni and Godowsky, it would have degenerated into just another warhorse ridden to death to conquer the world with big technique. But Grieg's Norwegian sweetener really makes these arrangements unique.

If you are a fan of Grieg's own piano sonata (I am and what a pity he wrote only one), you'd notice that rustic Nordic sound miraculously infiltrated Mozart's beautiful mind (K545). Isn't creativity about novelty and breaking the rules? It's like inviting your idol to visit your home town and dance with your fellow villagers. How disrespectful could that be? Unfortunately the biggest European publisher Edition Peters and Norwegian music critics of Grieg's time thought that desecration. This hard-headed belief was further reinforced by modern-day piety. It explains why a recording of such repertoire is still taboo among well-established pianists. The only other duo I know of that dared to break the embargo was the Giarmanà-Lucchetti Duo that made the 1996 recording [Stradivarius STV 33410].

Mozart's early sonatas were mostly written for wealthy sponsors with amateurish keyboard skills or for his own concert tours. His father Leopold was particularly vigilant in rationing them to publishers to keep some surprises up the child prodigy's sleeves. The K283 was one such dilettante salon music by Mozart. With Grieg's piano secondo appropriately ornamented with a touch of elegance, this should have been easy on any good Mozartean's palate.

The simple yet beautiful K545 was probably written for teaching because Mozart called it "Little Sonata for Beginners". With Grieg's embellishment it becomes somewhat symphonic in the first movement, decisively romantic and love duet like in the sweet "Andante" with the two-part canon treatment and extremely Nordic and peasant dance like in the "Rondo". The extra transitional phrase in the "Rondo" recapitulation is very logical, economical and effective. [See bracketed measures on page 3 of facsimile of the score here. Thanks to Morten Lindberg of 2L for sharing this. Credit Edition Peters, the publisher that turned Grieg away over 100 years ago, for changing their minds in due course.]

The K457 and the K533 were written during Mozart's maturity when the convivial salon mood had gradually migrated to intellectual worldliness. Grieg's arrangement added a new dimension of passionate Beethovian drive. I'm surprised that except for the final movement, Grieg's opinion of the K533 turns out to be more fervent than the K457, which was in a minor key and supposedly more 'serious'.

Heide Görtz and Tina Margareta Nilssen are accomplished solo pianists in their own rights who have not quite achieved stardom by today's absolute commercial standard. That's a blessing in disguise. They needn't carry the burden of status and consciously overwhelm the audience with star-studded exuberance and adrenaline thrills. Nor do they have to dress up Mozart with that wide-eyed innocence or holier-than-thou kowtowing most famed Mozart interpreters feel compelled to. As the Dena Piano Duo, they can be honest and human to the music and enjoy the making of it. They strike me as musicians who are free of calculating considerations and personal ambition. And that purity at heart brings out in this Mozart-Grieg alliance the finer musical nuances that go beyond sheer coherence of tempo and well-judged balance.

Sonic excellence has always been 2L's forté and the two Steinways here come alive with high-resolution detail in stereo and added verisimilitude in multi-channel.