in: Reviews

September 13, 2011

Belogurov, Sensitivity Beyond His Years


A contemplative Artem Belogurov at a rehearsal.

Many places around the country marked the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks with performances of W. A. Mozart’s Requiem. In his début appearance here this afternoon, Boston-based, Ukraine-born pianist Artem Belogurov also chose to play a complete program of Mozart: the first five sonatas for keyboard, on the instrument by Joseph Brodmann from ca. 1800-1805  in its second appearance in the Collection’s 27th fall concert season’s second recital; its first appearance was last Sunday. You can find details about the instrument and its builder in my review of that recital here .

Mozart wrote his first six keyboard sonatas in Munich, five (K. 279-283), in 1774; the sixth, K. 284, in early 1775; the seventh and ninth, K. 309 and K. 311, written in Mannheim, date from 1777, and the eighth, K. 310, heard last week, was written in Paris in 1778. All, therefore, were composed 25 to 30 years before the Brodmann was made. This means that it is capable of more than those for and on which Mozart wrote the pieces, because enormous strides were made in the perfection of technical features and in the power and the sound of the instrument in that quarter century. However, it is a very appropriate one on which to play them, because we know that Mozart was especially fond of the “Viennese” action, like the Brodmann’s, of the instruments of Johann Andreas Stein of Augsburg, its inventor, whom Mozart first met in 1763, when he purchased a portable practice instrument from him there. In addition, because from the viewpoint of the sound, this instrument is conservative in comparison with some of its competition by contemporary makers such as Anton Walter, whose products Beethoven liked, it is particularly well-suited for these pieces.

Mozart went back again in 1777 and wrote home on October 17, in a famous and often quoted letter to his father Leopold, who was from Augsburg, about how much he liked Stein’s latest models. This action, with its escapement, known as Prellmechanik, perfected by Stein, allowed lightness and responsiveness of touch and rapid repetition of notes that earlier instruments by other makers were incapable of. It was, in fact, the sixth sonata that Mozart tried out on Stein’s latest model that day, and he played it on the same instrument in a concert, favorably reviewed in the local Augsburgische Staats- und Gelehreten Zeitung, in the concert hall of Count Fugger in Augsburg five days later. It, like this instrument, had genouillères (knee levers), whose operation also impressed Mozart as better than those of the competitors. Henceforth, it was his preferred make, and he is known to have played other Steins in concert and perhaps to have owned one. He died five years before Brodmann went into business. Thus, while there may be some question about the intended instrument – harpsichord/clavichord or pianoforte – of these first five sonatas, there can be no doubt that all those from the seventh on were written for the fortepiano/pianoforte, and there is little doubt that Mozart preferred the way the first six sounded on it.

Because this instrument is triple-strung only in the upper 2.5 octaves (the low and middle registers double-strung; triple stringing coming later), it does not produce any ‘tinkling’ sounds that some modern listeners dislike. Listeners need, however, to dial back their expectations for power, but they can dial up their expectations for tonal color and expression, in spite of the rapid decay of the individual notes. Patricia Frederick’s notes about the piano in the series program booklet mention an 1813 letter from Carl Maria von Weber to his brother, on the occasion of a piano shopping visit to Vienna, in which he claims to have tried out about 50 different instruments, among which only two stood out, one by Brodmann and one by Nannette Streicher (Stein’s daughter who carried on the firm, moving it to Vienna in 1794), and because he could not decide which he liked better, he bought one of each! It may well be that the color of the former pleased him while he liked the somewhat stronger power of the latter?

Mozart was 18 when he wrote these works, so still finding his way. They demonstrate a clear progression in achievement from the first to the fifth. The Mozart works that we are most accustomed to hearing tend to move trippingly along, but the first two of these sonatas seem choppy, particularly in the faster movements, perhaps as a result of Mozart’s own insecurity with the new developing form, and perhaps also a holdover from the Baroque dance suite form and from harpsichord playing style? The slower movements already flow more smoothly, and they have more and more memorable melodies as we move through the sequence.

Many listeners are excited and impressed by a pianist’s performance of the fast movements because of their often brilliant showy display, but the true tenor of an artist’s abilities often lies in the handling of the slow movements. Belogurov really shone in those throughout the afternoon, not that his nimble fingers were by any means deficient in the fast movements, but he displayed a sensitivity beyond his years in them without any of the oft-heard Romanticized emotive exaggeration.

Belogurov played the five in sequence, with an intermission between the third and fourth. They are in five different keys, all major: C, F, B-flat, Eflat, and G. The third, with its lovely Allegro amoroso middle movement, gives the first clue of Mozart’s true potential and hangs together better than the first two, thus making an appropriate climax for the first half. Belogurov paused between each of them. After the intermission, however, he cleverly made an unbroken set of the fourth and fifth by improvising a modulating prelude to transition from the key of the fourth’s final Allegro to that of the fifth’s opening one. The whole was an impressive and superb reading that made the audience hold its breath and deservingly led to several shouts of ‘Bravo!’.

The fourth sonata is perhaps the most interesting and unusual of the lot, with its opening slow Adagio followed by a central movement of Menuettos I – II, which therefore veritably invited this very successful and pleasing continuous-flow treatment. Belogurov exploited the full potential of the instrument’s color without producing any unpleasant clacking-key sounds and without any blurring by inappropriate use of the damper lever – he nearly never raised it; it must be said that these works call for more ppp and less fff playing than the next group of sonatas. Belogurov’s concentration and control of dynamics and expression were remarkable. He played from scores throughout, for the most part having each movement on a single spread so that little distracting page turning was necessary, and he was frequently just checking in on them as he moved along. Mozart may have been finding his way; Belogurov seems to have found his. We hope to hear him again in future series here.

Marvin J. Ward, a retired translator and teacher of French (Ph.D., UNC Chapel Hill), has been writing for Classical Voice of North Carolina, a professional journal, for a decade and was founding Executive Editor of Classical Voice of New England through December, 2009.



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