A substantial crowd gathered on Sunday afternoon to hear Benjamin Hochman perform a Mozart Recital at Bard College’s Lazlo-Bitó Conservatory Building. Why the excitement? Hochman has embarked on a project to perform the complete Piano Sonatas of Mozart over the next twelve moths, which will culminate as a full program to be performed at the Israel Conservatory in September 2019. This was the first preview: four sonatas, early, middle, and late.
Hochman opened with Mozart’s Sonata No. 1 from 1774. This pleasant early work, glimmering in the shadow of Haydn, displayed more aspiration than achievement—good, well-polished, yet nothing to be really excited about. It announced Hochman as a virtuoso pianist (as it probably did for Mozart).
Sonata No. 17 in B-flat major, K. 570 from 1789 (two years before Mozart’s death) was a dazzling heirloom. As one of Mozart’s most rounded and accomplished sonatas, it painted a vivid contrast: from the promising pianist, here was a mature work with interesting interstitial texture, which is what Hochman is a master of—those effortless leaping transitions from one mood to another. Hochman caught the mercurial light, effervescence, and humor of the great keyboard master. Many pianists are able to capture the delightful, ambient joy of Mozart, yet few master the subtlety of Mozart’s impish, humor in the seemingly-spontaneous varying cadences of his compositions, especially in the apparently casual counterpoint of the finale, which reveals where the witty composition had traveled from and how it arrived on the portal of the ear with such effortless irony.
Sonata No. 11 in A major, K. 331 from 1783 remains perhaps Mozart’s most best-known sonata. Opening with theme and variation, the melody undergoes six metamorphic transformations as it foregrounds elaborations. The emotional romanticism of the following Menuetto now sounds like a prophecy of later Romanticism; it is so delightfully seductive that one begins to hold one’s breath and enter into an unexpected world. The pseudo-Turkish march motif of the concluding movement with its dynamic gradations was a fashionable style in Paris at the time when and where Mozart wrote it (think Mozart’s A Major Violin Concerto and his opera The Abduction from the Seraglio), and has remained remarkably so to this day, due to it inimitable charm.
Hochman concluded with Sonata No. 8 in A minor, K. 310 from1778, also written in Paris where Mozart arrived in March with his mother, yet its melancholy mood and meditative introspection is often thought to be a recollection of his mother’s death in July of that year, shortly after their arrival. This serious meditation on death retains a brooding, provocative sensibility suitable for offering contrast to the preceding intoxication of the more popular pieces played before it. This had the effect of reminding the audience that Mozart was no mere social entertainer, but a composer deeply in touch with the vagaries of our journey on earth.
Playing from memory, Hochman’s playing was clean, nuanced, rolling with spontaneous inflection as he peddled expertly on the Steinway. Hochman will continue this Recital series on February 3, 2019. Perhaps his effort will conclude with a recording that will challenge the 1990 recordings of Philippe Entremont.