Vandalising Mozart’s K. 331? – Practising the Piano

In 2014, an amazing discovery was made in the National Széchényi Library in Budapest – a four-page fragment of part of Mozart’s Sonata in A major, K. 331, in the composer’s own handwriting. As a result, new editions have been able to correct some small errors on the part of the first edition by Artaria (Vienna, 1784) that pianists have been playing wrongly for over two centuries. The story is an extremely exciting one – you can read all about it on the sonata’s very own website.

Bärenreiter’s 2017 edition

I wonder how many players who invest in elite Urtext editions actually bother to read the prefaces? The 2017 Bärenreiter edition not only informs us about the genesis of the work, but also provides an evaluation of the sources as well as helpful notes on performance practice by Mario Aschauer. These notes give information about the types of pianos Mozart would have played – very useful when it comes to making decisions about pedalling, touch and articulation – and the always-tricky subject of ornamentation.

Staccato dots and strokes

The notation for different lengths and qualities of staccato differs depending on the composer and the style period. According to the preface of the Bärenreiter edition, the staccato stroke was, for Mozart, interchangeable with the staccato dot. 

A particular problem of Mozart philology is the reproduction of staccato marks [the staccato dot or the staccato stroke]. The first edition of K. 331 exclusively uses strokes, except for the combination with slurs (portato) where dots are used. Mozart’s autograph features dots and strokes, but above all numerous intermediate forms that cannot be easily identified. In addition, Mozart occasionally notates simultaneously dots and strokes in different voices…or in parallel passages, one time with dots, another with strokes…Furthermore, recent research has convincingly argued that with Mozart there is no musical difference in meaning between the two different kinds of marks. (Preface, XIII)

Glenn Gould’s recording

The recording made by Glenn Gould (released in 1973) tends to put into perspective such nit-picking over the minutiae of performance, just in case we become obsessive about it all. Here Mozart’s supposed intentions hardly seem to matter, and the score is fair game for the most bizarre conception imaginable. 

According to a 1966 interview with Humphrey Burton, Gould hadn’t much of a conception of the piece until about a week before he went in to record it, and surprised himself with what he came up with. He introduced “a few really wild things”, turning the theme into an “Anton Webern-like statement of apostrophes” at such a remarkably slow tempo as to be truly shocking. Not only that, he makes massive incisions in articulation that have to be heard to be believed. Gould’s intention was to play it “so maddeningly slowly that I had to get everybody’s hackles aroused. I had to get a reaction”. He gradually let each variation move forward, finally “doing one really perverse thing, and that is taking a variation that is Mozart has – forgive me! – actually marked adagio, and turning it into an allegretto. Gradually the whole movement took off.” When challenged by the interviewer, Gould insisted that this actually works for him. He wanted to make people sit up and listen anew to a work so well-known it has become jaded. What’s your reaction? The official Glenn Gould website has this to say about the recording.

No Gould recording received a more solid thrashing than his reading of the A-major Sonata, K. 331: “The most loathsome record ever made!”—“It all conjures up an image of a tremendously precocious but very nasty little boy trying to put one over on his piano teacher.”—“It is very difficult to see what Gould is out to prove, unless the rumor that he actually hates this music is true.”

In case you are under the impression that everything Gould did was off-the-wall, you might be surprised by how beautiful – and faithful to the score – his Brahms Intermezzi recordings were. Have a listen to these, and be prepared for something rather special. In Gould’s own words:  

It’s the sexiest interpretation of Brahms’s Intermezzi you’ve ever heard—and I really think it is perhaps the best piano playing I have done. You know what an incurable romantic I am anyway.


For an analysis of Mozart’s K. 331, click here

For Malcolm Bilson’s recording on the fortepiano, click here

For Tuija Hakkila’s recording on the fortepiano, click here

For Olga Jegunova’s 2012 live performance, click here

To hear the janissary effects in the last movement (Rondo alla turca) possible on a period fortepiano played here by Manuela Giardina, click here

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