Any appreciable amount of time spent listening to Mozart is an awe-inspiring experience considering how short a time he lived, the amount of varied music he wrote, and the fact that, as the notes to this great box-set indicate, "Mozart had little or not need to write down sonatas: he improvised them, making an impression on his audience on the spur of the moment . . . [he] only wrote down what he had to." Obviously, he was a total prodigy--a performer and composer whose gifts come only on the rarest of occasions--and much of what made him such a legend in 18th-century music circles was done for the moment and then lost.
There were, in all, twenty-two sonatas by the master for solo performance on the keyboard, the four earliest, starting from when Mozart was ten years old, having been lost, leaving eighteen. The last of the sonatas came in July 1789, a little over two years before the composer died. This set, released in 1996 by the British Nimbus label and totaling a little over six hours on as many discs, is performed by the excellent Bulgarian-born Marta Deyanova. The recordings were largely made in 1989 and 1990, with one track laid down in 1995 and the sound is superb.
The notes by David Threasher compactly and succinctly discuss the eighteen sonatas and a nice touch are quotes from letters written by Mozart to his father Leopold. One of these is from 1777, in which the 21-year old informed his father that "I played all my six sonatas today" and then quoted from a Count Savioli who told Mozart that "I hear that you play the clavier [a precursor to the modern piano] quite passably." The composer then merely stated that, "I bowed." These six works came from two years prior to the letter.
Threasher pointed out that Mozart's earliest piano sonatas were influenced by a set of six sonatas published in 1774 by the great Franz Josef Haydn, although he also noted that Mozart's improvisatory powers were dominant in at least the first of the sextet.
In a letter to his father written four days later than the one quoted above, Mozart wrote that he had just composed a rondo for a sonata, this being a Sonata in C Major and for which he had totally improvised a rondo "full of din and sound" a few weeks prior. This work was dedicated to a young pupil, Rose Cannabich, with a pretty andante which may have reflected strong feelings the composer had to his charge. His next set of sonatas came, then, in 1777-78, during which time Mozart experienced difficulties working in Paris, where he was underappreciated and in which his mother died during a visit to him.
A few sonatas were written in 1783, just after his marriage to Constanze Weber and while the pair were living in Salzburg with his father. Threasher wrote that "Mozart was aware that he would need a fund of new music for the purposes of performance, pedagogy and perhaps publication, and composed these three sonatas to fill such a need." One of these, in A major, is among the composer's most-beloved pieces, featuring the stunning Rondo alla Turca finale.
Further works came later in 1783 and during the following year, including the famed C minor sonata and a stand-alone fantasia in that key that usually proceeds the other in performance. This fantasia, even amongst the greatness of the other solo piano works, astounds with its jaw-dropping technicality and its beauty.
Finally, a quartet of sonatas came in 1788 and 1789 and characteristically at least one of these, the F major was written to pay off one of his chronic debts--in this case to his publisher. Another, a C major, was intended for teaching and bore the title "Little Sonata for Beginners." The final two, coming in 1789, remained unpublished until after Mozart's death and one, a B flat, appeared as a work for piano and violin, with the latter assumed not to have been the master's work.
As to Deyanova, who has recorded many albums of piano music for Nimbus, including works by Schubert, Scriabin, Chopin and Rachmaninoff, she was a prize-winning performer as a child in her homeland and then won international competitions in Italy, Paris and in Sofia. After a 1969 prize-winning performance, Yehudi Mehunin wrote that "I wish Marta Deyanova the international career she so richly deserves." Fortunately, that did happen, as she has toured the world over and, from 1978, recorded her extensive solo piano work for Nimbus.