Tall Poppies


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Mozart Keyboard Sonatas KV330-332

Geoffrey Lancaster (fortepiano)

$23   (Australian dollars)


buy at: AMC - Buywell

Geoffrey Lancaster is still wowing audiences in the fifth decade of his performing career. Tall Poppies first recorded Geoffrey playing Mozart way back in 1991 when he accompanied the Song Company in their Unexpurgated Mozart recording. Here we are 26 years later still recording and releasing the music of this ever-fascinating composer.

These works are played on a fortepiano based on an 1805 instrument by Anton Walter & Sohn and made by Paul McNulty in Czechoslovakia in 2011.

Geoffrey's customary virtuosity and wit bring these three works to life.

MozartPrelude in C major
Sonata in C major K. 330
Prelude in A major
Sonata in A major K. 331
Prelude in F major
Sonata in F major K. 332


It takes about 10 seconds to realise there is something quite strange or very wonderful going on here.

The cover art announces the inimitable Geoffrey Lancaster, that wonderful ratbag Australian exponent of preclassical music, at a fortepiano playing three well-known Mozart keyboard sonatas. And yet the wizardry of Tall Poppies seems to have recorded Mozart himself. Images of Tom Hulceís wilful portrayal in Milos Formanís wonderful 1984 movie Amadeus float by in the imagination.
Hulce/Lancaster/Mozart is not merely performing, he is actually composing these chestnuts. Here they emerge as fragments, outbursts, conversations, sweet nothings in the ears of periwigged courtiers and plotters in Salzburg and Vienna back in 1783.

There is barely a bar played in the conventional four-square manner. The musical architecture is taken apart and reassembled in bizarre yet illuminating ways.

These are not so much notated compositions as recorded improvisations or even accompaniments to imagined operatic arias. Lancasterís nimble fingers glide and caress a fortepiano constructed by Paul McNulty which is based on a 1805 Viennese model, and tuned to A-330 pitch.

Recorded in Perth in June 2016, this instrument produces a lively palette of colours. Lancasterís annotations detail his often notorious thoughts on performance style.

Listeners to the familiar Rondo Alla Turca from the Sonata in A, K. 331, to take only a short extract from the 73 minutes on this bristling album, will find themselves tossed between outrage and exhilaration.

Purists have condemned these performances, but I salute a shibboleth-shattering performer and a brave recording company for sweeping away 250 years of straitlaced stylistic purity and pomposity. I will never be able to listen to these familiar pieces in quite the same way again.

If there is one album to blow fresh breeze into a new year, this is it.
Vincent Plush
The Australian 13 January 2018

Geoffrey Lancasterís new CD of Mozart piano sonatas, Mozart Keyboard Sonatas KV330Ė332, is by turns beguiling and infuriating, thrilling and glib. Well, perhaps glib isnít quite the word ó Lancaster may throw away certain notes and phrases, turning them into the merest of asides, but only, one suspects, after much thought.

Lancaster, professor at the WA Academy of Performing Arts at Edith Cowan University, is one of the foremost exponents of the fortepiano. This is the instrument for which Mozart composed his sonatas, the forerunner of the modern piano and markedly different from a Steinway grand. The shiny, black leviathan of the modern concert stage is designed to sound as even-toned as possible from the bottom of the keyboard to the top. But the fortepiano is anything but even. The highest notes are bright, thin and flute-like, the bottom octave has a dark, bassoony burr. These contrasting colours bring drama but also clarity. You can hear the different layers of the music, because they donít blend into a sonorous wodge (however lovely that wodge might sound in its own right). And the tones die away sooner, even with the sustaining pedal down.

But the sound of the fortepiano ó beguiling as it is, and beautifully recorded ó is the least of the revelations on this new CD. Lancasterís disc contains the three sonatas Mozart composed in 1783 ó familiar, not to say famous, works ó so the first surprise comes when you put on the CD, expecting the sonata in C, K. 330, and you fail, utterly, to recognise the music. This is because itís not Mozart: itís Lancaster.

In the eighteenth century and beyond ó even into the twentieth century ó pianists would routinely preface their performances with an improvised prelude. We know that Mozart himself did it. Itís a preparatory flourish in the style and key of the music to follow, a clearing of the throat, a call to attention that leads, after the merest pause, into the sonata itself. In the context of this recording, Lancasterís preluding has a slightly different function: it makes you listen harder to music you probably already know.

When it comes to Mozartís own notes, Lancaster makes sure these, too, are as arrestingly unfamiliar as possible. His attitude is one of conjecture but not surmise. History informs his approach ó his essay in the booklet is footnoted to within an inch of its life ó but the results are anything but theoretical. What Lancasterís research tells him is that players of Mozartís day (including the composer) would typically present such music with the utmost freedom. If you know the conventions ó and these include liberal use of ornamentation and an exceptionally elastic approach to tempo ó you can apply them at will, and Lancaster certainly does that.

Occasionally, I feel he goes too far. For example, in the A major sonata, K. 331, the first movement is a set of variations, lasting, in Lancasterís account, more than a quarter of an hour. Since the variations themselves form a display case for Mozartís compositional brilliance and Lancasterís pianistic bravura, you might hope he would at least present the simple themeÖ well, simply. But by bar 8, heís already applied the brakes to the half cadence. It seems fussy. Doubtless Lancaster would think I was just being boring.

I also had my doubts about the famous Rondo alla Turka with which this sonata concludes. Itís magnificently clattery on this instrument, the Janissary music that so captivated the composer here vividly fiercesome. For good measure, just before the end, a crazy, improvised cadenza irrupts thrillingly into the music. But once again I wondered whether this Turkish march music might be more effective if it marched more and lurched less.

In magazines such as the Gramophone, which has reviewed classical recordings since 1923, the question is often posed: is this a recording to live with? Does the recording contain the sort of performance the listener might want to return to? It implies a safe pair of hands, a bland performance without eccentricity.

Geoffrey Lancasterís CD, quite rightly, is a take-no-prisoners assault on such pusillanimity. For Lancaster, music isnít meant to be house-trained, any more than it was for Mozart. Lancasterís performances are certainly not the sort that you would want to listen to every day ó though, right now, that is exactly what Iím doing! ó and in time, I imagine, the pianistís wilder exaggerations will come to seem like affectations (some of them already do).

None of that is the point. The point is that this CD demands to be heard and will force you to think about Mozart and his music. Lancaster, I imagine, would say that this is the only reason he performs.
© Andrew Ford December 2017

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