I’m off to Vienna to rehearse four programmes of Mozart’s music which violinist Erich Höbarth and I are playing this season in Perth Concert Hall, Scotland’s newest concert hall (is on November 11). We’re tackling twelve of Mozart’s sonatas for piano and violin.
Piano and violin, I hear you say? Isn’t it ‘violin and piano’? Well, not according to Mozart who called them ‘sonatas for piano and violin’. In his letters, he mentions playing the piano parts himself ‘with the accompaniment of a violin’. That was how they were perceived until the nineteenth century and the age of the celebrity violinist, when things flipped around. These works, and many others like them, started to be listed as ‘violin sonatas’, and the piano part was suddenly ‘the accompaniment’. Even today the violinist is often the one with their photo on the record cover, the one whose name is in bigger font in the programme, or the only one whose name is mentioned at the end of the radio broadcast.
Why does this matter? It matters because the re-labelling tricks people into perceiving things falsely. They expect the violin part to be the leading voice, when in fact the meat of the musical narrative is in the piano part. If you approach these works expecting the violin part to be pre-eminent, you experience a kind of cognitive dissonance as you listen: often the violin is doing something quite modest, and you sense that the piano part is full of interest and information, but you don’t understand why such prominent material should be relegated to ‘the accompaniment’. The answer is that it isn’t an accompaniment. If you switch to hearing the music as piano with violin, everything falls into place. Of course you still need an excellent violinist, and perhaps even more importantly, an excellent musician, both of which I’m fortunate to have.
With more historical awareness, and with the intervention of a few strong-minded pianists, things are beginning to move back to Mozart’s original concept of ‘sonatas for piano with violin’. If you look up all the available recordings on Spotify, you’ll find about half of the duo sonatas advertised with the pianist’s name first, the other half with the violinist’s name first. This shows the confusion around the topic. It’s clearly a situation in transition, but at least there is movement.