Sonata for Violin & Piano in B flat, K. 454 | Anne-Sophie Mutter interview

Analysis and Performance




Abram Loft

From Abram Loft, Violin and Keyboard: The Duo Repertoire. Volume 1: From the Seventeenth Century to Mozart
(Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press, 1973) pp. 287-293

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, La duchesse de Polignac, 1782

If not before, then certainly in this sonata, Mozart achieves the complete equality and interdependence of violin and piano. ‘One cannot conceive,’ writes Einstein, ‘of any more perfect alternation of the two instruments than that in the first Allegro, into which one enters through a proud Largo as through a triumphal arch.’ The even-handed treatment applies as well to the Largo itself; the aiming of the spotlight is indicated in the following schematic table:


Both instruments – – Piano – – Both – – Violin

Violin – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Piano – – – – – – – – – –

Violin – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Piano – – – – – – – – – –

Violin – – – – – Piano – – – – – – Violin – – – – – Both

 Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Varvara Ivanovna Ladomirskïa, 1800

One of the feats of performance required of both players is found in measures 5 to 9. Piano first, then violin, play accompanying chordal pulses that must sound similar in both instruments, and should, ideally, resemble horn tone. In the last measures of the introduction (9 to 13), there is some delicious dialogue between the two, each instrument topping the other in elegance and grace. The ensemble here must be instinctive: each instrumental statement must truly be in response to the preceding utterance of the partner. The interplay is the more important because it is reflected in corresponding dialogues placed at the end of the exposition, development, and recapitulation of the Allegro proper. Short examples of each will demonstrate the relationship:

Mozart, Sonata for Violin & Piano in B Flat, K. 454 | Measures 11-13

Mozart, Sonata for Violin & Piano in B Flat, K. 454 | Measures 60-65

Mozart, Sonata for Violin & Piano in B Flat, K. 454 | Measures 79-82

Mozart, Sonata for Violin & Piano in B Flat, K. 454 | Measures 146-148

Aside from their structural importance as landmarks in the movement, these passages must have been great fun for Mozart and violinist Strinasacchi. If the banter is not easy and fun in today’s performance—practice! The timing of the response (for example, a fraction of a second’s delay before the final fragment, second half of measure 65) and its inflection (for example, a questioning tone achieved through a slight diminution of level and shrinking of bow stroke toward the middle of measure 63) are as essential as literal accuracy in the execution.

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Self-Portrait in Profile, 1801

Another highlight in the Allegro is the sforzando on the D flat, middle of measure 25, in the piano part. This should not be an overly refined accent, but rather an emphatic falling onto the foreign body that has suddenly been discovered in the musical line. The waves made by this sudden shock of sound seem to break up the line, shunting it back and forth between violin and piano (look at the sixteenths in measures 27 to 29). Another nicety is the way the violin hops onto the piano’s express-train sixteenth-note line in measures 46 and 47. And in measures 51 to 57, the piano’s shift from rolling eighths to boiling sixteenths: the cloud of notes must support, not obscure, the singing violin line floating above.

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun
La baronne de Crussol Forensac, 1785 (detail)

The short development is dramatic by understatement and delicacy: note the chain of sighs, between the two instruments, or between the two trebles against the bass, in measures 81 to 89. As if to counter the delicacy and the brevity of the development, there is a second, more robust development, immediately following the first theme in the recapitulation (cf. measures 98 to 110). Though Mozart himself calls for piano dynamics in this passage, the interpretation must be one of strength and drive within that quiet level.

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Madame du Barry, 1781

Toward the end of the movement, another spot calls for intensity in quiet: measures 149 to 152, where simultaneous chords are suddenly split, as if by aural aberration, into oom-pah oom-pah setting.

Mozart, Sonata for Violin & Piano in B Flat, K. 454 | Measures 149-152

A general and overriding problem in the Allegro is to make it sound like an extension and fulfillment of the Largo introduction, and not a contradiction thereof. As in the famous Dissonant Quartet, K. 465 (composed nine months after this sonata), it is too simple to turn one’s back on the introduction and launch into a totally different and frivolous fast movement. Fast, yes; flippant, no. Dynamic, yes; raucous, no. The Allegro must sound like the other side of the same musical character, not like some defiantly different intruder.

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Léonie de Rivière, 1831

The Andante is such another side of Mozart: Mozart at his best. It offers us a picture of a guileless, completely sincere, and consequently vulnerable spirit. To play this movement effectively, there can be no sham, no virtuoso pretense, no hardness in sound or phrasing. Technical difficulties are not lacking in this movement, but they are secondary to those of emotion and personality. ‘Mozart was very liberal in giving praise to those who deserved it; but felt a thorough contempt for insolent mediocrity,’ wrote the singer Michael Kelly, who was a friend of Mozart’s in Vienna. Mozart was rough on his contemporaries unless he respected their ability and artistry. He can be equally rough on his interpreters today, even from beyond the grave, for his music betrays the flashy and superficial approach immediately. In performance, we always put ourselves on the line, and never more so than in this kind of music.

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Self-Portrait, 1781

As an example of the technical problems, we may quote at least one of those sessions of close-formation flying of the two players: measures 15 to 21. First, an ascent in sixteenth couplets, followed by a gliding descent in dotted-figure rhythm. Then a higher ascent in triplet-sextolet pattern, and on to a cadential pattern in easily trailing sixteenths. The episode cries out to be counted, but should sound like a spur-of-the-moment inspiration when played.

Marie-Gabrielle Capet, Self-Portrait, 1783

Immediately afterward, the violin becomes prima donna (measures 21 ff.), singing a hushed cantilena line of ineffable beauty. This in turn is followed, as though in sudden shift of scene, by a sturdier passage, in duet responses, that carries us through to the end of the first section of the movement. Now (measure 49) begins the most difficult portion of the Andante: its B section, actually a full-fledged development of the temper of the movement. The violin and piano must hover, revolve around each other, rhapsodize, without ever letting the passing series of vignettes or the thread of the unwinding harmonic sequence be broken. That thread takes us from B flat, to B flat minor, slips into A sharp on the way to B major, then bends through that to reach a more extensive excursion on C major, settles leisurely onto B flat, and from there descends finally to E flat and the return section.

Anne Vallayer-Coster, Portrait of a Violinist, 1773 (detail)

A last beneficence of this movement is the soft, haunting glow of its final cadence, deliberately placing both instruments in their lowest register:

Mozart, Sonata for Violin & Piano in B Flat, K. 454 | Measures 114-116

If one has played this most expressive of movements, it is especially affecting to read Mozart’s self-appraisal, written in jocular vein in a birthday felicitation to his father in 1777: I cannot write in verse, for I am no poet. I cannot arrange the parts of speech with such art as to produce effects of light and shade, for I am no painter. Even by signs and gestures, I cannot express my thoughts and feelings, for I am no dancer. But I can do so by means of sounds, for I am a musician. For it is precisely the sense of verse, of light and shade, of gesture, of thought and feeling that one hears, in addition to the sounds, in a movement such as this Andante.

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard
Madame de Selve faisant de la musique, 1787

The concluding Allegretto begins where the previous movement left off: with B flat in the violin part. There, it is a note of repose. Here, it serves as a launching pad for the upward octave leap that sets the movement under way. Again the composer is prodigal with his melodic ideas; the refrain tune is expansive, propulsive. It brings with itself (measures 16 ff.) a secondary tune that adds to the gaiety. This melody must be played with melting ease, in contrast to the urgent tone of the principal melody. Note, however, that there is an echo of that urgency in the second half of this second subject (cf. measures 18 and 19); the reflection of that temper must be made clear by the player.

Mozart, Sonata for Violin & Piano in B Flat, K. 454 | Measures 17-22

The various contrasting tunes that crop up in the movement are distinct from one another, yet related enough to give continuity to the musical fabric. Compare these excerpts:

Mozart, Sonata for Violin & Piano in B Flat, K. 454 | Measures 28-31

Mozart, Sonata for Violin & Piano in B Flat, K. 454 | Measures 110-111

Or again, compare the varieties of stealth in these two avenues of return to the opening theme:

Mozart, Sonata for Violin & Piano in B Flat, K. 454 | Measures 86-90

Mozart, Sonata for Violin & Piano in B Flat, K. 454 | Measures 138-144

The big trap in this movement lies at its very end. By the time one has arrived at measure 251, a good head of steam will have been built up. What is more natural than for the violinist to swing gaily into the triplets of these measures? And what more reasonable than for the pianist to move compliantly along with the quarter-note commentary?

Mozart, Sonata for Violin & Piano in B Flat, K. 454 | Measures 250-253

Retribution falls in the frenzy of sixteenths that invades the piano part from measure 259 on. Now it is the violin’s turn to settle back into a slower accompaniment. But a beautiful friendship will have come to an abrupt end.

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, La duchesse d’Aiguillon, 1790





Anne-Sophie Mutter

Source: Anne-Sophie Mutter interviewed by Walter Dobner in May 2006, published but now unavailable on ASM’s website.

Anne-Sophie Mutter & Lambert Orkis, Mozart: The Violin Sonatas, 2006

Anne-Sophie Mutter, why do we hear only a few of Mozart’s violin sonatas on your new album? Are they really so unattractive to a violinist?


To say ‘only a few’ is something of an exaggeration. The ones that I’ve chosen are the great violin sonatas. The early works have never interested me, as the violin merely accompanies the right hand—as it does with Haydn. Then there are several keyboard sonatas that were later turned into violin sonatas. I think that with our selection of sixteen sonatas we have covered three important creative periods in the life of an already mature composer: the Mannheim period and the two phases of his time in Vienna. I’m not out to prove that I’ve recorded all that Mozart ever wrote for the violin and piano. This survey contains the works that are important to me personally and that are central to Mozart’s output as a composer.

Luis Paret y Alcazar, Elegant Company Preparing for a Masked Ball, 1770 (detail)

The piano is the dominant instrument not just in the early sonatas. In the Violin Sonata in A major K. 526, which dates from the same year as Don Giovanni, 1787, the piano part is one of the most demanding that Mozart ever wrote in a keyboard work. Does this explain why violinists tend to prefer the concertos to the sonatas?


There are also the purely personal predilections of each individual musician. These include a preference for this or that concerto. I don’t think the fact that many of these sonatas are not often played has anything to do simply with the vanity of the violinist. It’s often a lack of interest in chamber music, a genre that lies somewhat off the beaten track. But you find the same elsewhere—with the Beethoven sonatas, for example: of the op. 30 set, the C minor Sonata is often performed, whereas the other two go by the board. Op. 23 is not a popular choice—people prefer the ‘Spring Sonata’ op. 24, even though it really only emerges in its true colours against the background of its darker predecessor, with its sense of inner turmoil. That’s why this Mozart cycle is important to me. Even though chronological considerations play a relatively minor role when compared to Beethoven, it’s wonderful to follow this development from the first Mannheim sonata to one of the last, which Mozart wrote for Regina Strinasacchi.

Johann Heinrich Tischbein the Elder, Portrait of a Young Lady, 1753

What criteria did you use in deciding which sonatas to programme as part of your three concerts?


I chose the most important works from all three creative periods—the Mannheim period and the middle and later periods in Vienna. And I tried to order them in such a way that they make musical sense but are also manageable from a technical point of view. One would never start a programme with K. 378, for example: that would be utter suicide. And it also goes without saying that the works that one chooses to open a programme should begin with a fanfare or a similar theme and be very straightforward and extrovert. More introverted works tend to be found in the middle of a programme. It is a question of ensuring that each recital represents a self-contained survey and that a constant development is discernible, culminating in the compositional high point of the programme’s final sonata.

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Madame Élisabeth de France, 1787 (detail)

You’ve always had a particular predilection for Mozart…


I’ve always been a great lover of Mozart, a great, great admirer of this composer. Perhaps that’s why it seemed so obvious that I should also want to get to know the early works—the so-called ‘lesser’ sonatas—in order to find out more about him as a composer and add to my reputation as a Mozartian. None of these pieces is easy. Mozart has a habit of suddenly demanding that after a wonderfully beautiful elegiac melody you have to perform a triple forward somersault from a standing start. And yet it must never sound merely virtuosic. Mozart’s music is never an end in itself. However much he may have valued virtuosity, it’s always wrapped up in galanterie, elegance and expression. This command of the tiniest nuance and of the mere handful of notes that may be there on the printed page is far more difficult than with Tchaikovsky, for example. There, however bad it sounds, you can simply switch on to autopilot. It’s incredible fun to conjure the notes from thin air. With Mozart not a single note is conjured from thin air. Also, it’s always at a speed that doesn’t really race along. No matter how fast it is, it must always be very controlled.

Jean Baptiste Perronneau, Olivier Journu, 1756

Mozart speaks of the sonatas that he started in Mannheim in 1778 and completed in Paris as ‘keyboard duets with violin’. How does one interpret this phrase today?


That was simply a formula that people used at that time. It really doesn’t matter if they’re called ‘sonatas for violin and piano’ or the other way round. Neither the violin nor the piano has priority. Without this interaction, chamber music in general is impossible. It’s not a question of who has more notes to play or whose part is more important. Ultimately, the themes are divided equally between the two instruments even in the middle group of works from the Viennese period. I think it’s tremendous that in the late sonatas the violin, together with the piano, already takes over a theme in the middle of the phrase and then hands it back to the piano. Mozart achieves this to magisterial effect in the Sonata K. 454. We shouldn’t direct our gaze at superficialities such as who comes in first or who has more notes to play. It’s simply great chamber music, which demands of both musicians a supreme willingness to listen and a supreme readiness to be honest.

Jean Marc Nattier, Madame Joseph Nicolas Pancrace Royer, 1750

‘The young woman is a fright—but her playing is enchanting,’ Mozart described his pupil Josepha Barbara von Auernhammer in a letter to his father. She is the dedicatee of his Op. 2 set of violin sonatas, comprising K. 296 and 376-80, which were described in a contemporary review as ‘unique in kind, rich in new ideas and filled with traces of their author’s great musical genius’. Do you feel, like the reviewer, that they are ‘very brilliant and well suited to the instrument’?


Of course, he dedicated them to Fräulein Auernhammer because of her well-to-do father. He thought very little of her physical appearance and of her abilities as a pianist. Mozart had to keep his head above water. It was a diplomatic move to dedicate these sonatas to this relatively inexperienced pupil. With the possible exception of the Sonata K. 454, which he wrote for Regina Strinasacchi, Mozart was someone who not only took account of the abilities of the works’ dedicatees but who also wrote for himself. Whether the dedicatee could really manage these works was, I think, a matter of some indifference to him.

Alexander Roslin, Madame Deshanges, 1753

How do you assess the technical demands of these Mozart sonatas?


In a number of them there are some very tricky bits, something that violinists know very well. In the E flat major Sonata K. 380 there are a number of passages that are decidedly awkward. The sonatas are demanding from first to last. For me, the difficulty of Mozart’s music lies not in the passagework but in such things as the rondos. Take the rondo of the E flat major Sonata. To what extent should you delay the upbeat, or should you not delay it at all? The phrasing is the big problem, but it is also the key to Mozart’s music. For me, these sonatas are little operatic scenes. If you look at his letters, his handwriting—it very often goes round in a circle. These letters are really miniature works of visual art. Equally striking are the theatrical descriptions that his letters contain. For me, these sonatas are like narratives. Mozart never left the operatic stage, not even in his chamber music. This brings us back to the question of phrasing and to such tiny details as the upbeat or a phrase ending. The upbeats of the dance movements are incredibly important in this respect. Here there are whole worlds for me to explore: the musical structure that has to be brought out.

Jean Baptiste Greuze, Baptiste ainé, 1790

What is your attitude to Mozart’s final sonatas, to the B flat major Sonata K. 454, for example?


That particular sonata is a monumental achievement. Of all the sonatas, it’s my favourite, with the single exception of K. 304. Mozart achieves such mastery here. In the famous Andante the violin and piano are so elaborately intertwined that you simply don’t notice when the words are taken out of your mouth and put back again. This sonata is infinitely stimulating. And then this Allegretto at the end! This work has a depth that is unequalled.

Rosalba Carriera, Young Woman with Pearl Earrings, 1720



Anne-Sophie Mutter & Lambert Orkis

E-MINOR, K. 304


F-MAJOR, K. 547


Part Nine Chapter 8

How shall I convey the shadow and light of our last evening in Amsterdam? The shadow was within me, the light came from you. In the salon, Klaas, Lia, Joost and I watched you and Ingrid playing Mozart’s Violin Sonata in B-flat major, K. 454. As I listened to you render Mozart’s humanity through your capacity to listen to each other, I thought of Lia’s evolutionary tree—the birds from the reptiles—and wondered: What am I? Marietta, when your gaze met mine on that patio in Princeton, I felt the crack of the egg; I felt my serpent’s tooth making me an opening: I slithered out, I learned to crawl, but I still haven’t learned to fly. When will I? Listen! Your violin effortlessly takes over a theme in the middle of a phrase and then hands it back to Ingrid’s piano, leaving a thrill to run through me. Once again I am blown away by your virtuosity; once again I am moved by your virile femininity: In your flats, T-shirt and jeans, in your black and white and gold and green, you send me as you soar. Listen! You and Ingrid are so entwined that I can’t tell when she takes the cantabile out of your bow and when she puts it back: I simply let the ravishing lyricism of the Andante course through my veins.

Egon Schiele: Portrait of a Woman with Orange Hat, 1910 | Self-Portrait with Eyelid Pulled Down, 1910

And now once again I am overcome with love, once again I give thanks for the light: And then the shadow falls. I can’t forget the abortive search, the darkness of asylum; I can’t forget the silent screams, the air grabbed in gasps. Yes, I remember the dread of impending madness, the head-banger banging at my door; I remember the days when I couldn’t be still, fearing I’d lose myself, forget to think about myself, slip out of reality. I’d watch the clock, keep busy, for if I didn’t I’d no longer know who I am. I tried to read, but reading had become a game of infinite regression, an exercise in stealth: Persecuted by my own lucidity, obliged to be constantly aware of myself, I couldn’t accept the coin of signifiers lest it depredate my soul. No girl’s touch came to remind me that the most immediate, the most trustworthy, the most integral source of knowledge is the body.

Egon Schiele: Portrait of Edith Schiele, Seated, 1918 (detail) | Self-Portrait with Raised Left Hand, 1915 (detail)

Then again, I didn’t have a body. I was weightless, a wisp of smoke escaping from the citadel of myself, a faint signal of a murdered soul: I was an idiot. Look! Walking across a field of white, a boy feels a tremor running up his spine: He’s just realized the bare feet trudging through the snow are commanded by his mind. Look! The girl in the school bus, the terror in her eyes as the boy stares into them: ‘Know me. I want you to know me’. Look! The creeping rootstalks, the tender grass—look at the boy watching them grow; the mangy dog, the stray cat—see them licking his face. I can’t forget, I can’t forget, I can’t forget! And then once again I am overcome with love, once again I give thanks for the light: You’re tirelessly improvising, creating music in the moment: In the reprise the theme is never the same. Marrying inventive brilliance with intimacy and simplicity, virtuosity and gallantry with purity of soul, you honour the artist whose impeccable taste compelled the chaos at the heart of man to become a cosmos. And I, what am I? Crawling on the ground yet aspiring to fly, what am I?

Egon Schiele: Seated Woman with Bent Knee, 1917 | Self-Portrait with Outstretched Arms, 1911


A literary novel by Richard Jonathan






A literary novel by Richard Jonathan

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