Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: 12 Variations on “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman,” K. 265/300e – Piano Sonata n° 16 in C major, K. 545 – Piano Sonata n° 11 in A major, K. 331/300i – Piano Sonata n° 10 in C major, K. 330/300h
Magdalena Baczewska (piano)
Recording: Yamaha Artist Services, Inc., New York City, New York (May 1, 2021) – 75’13
BlueSleep / UPC: 19800003079 – Booklet in YouTube Video Format
One of the most innovative, even radical classical keyboardists in the U.S. has released an entire album of some of Mozart’s most beguiling piano music, from the “Twinkle, twinkle little star” variations to the Alla turca. But there is still a modern, even dangerous edge to her playing which lifts this album far beyond the humdrum.
I write, of course, of the wonderful Magdalena Baczewska (pronounced Ba’CHEVska), Columbia University professor by day, musical sorceress by night, contributing to the fusion of classical with hip hop in collections such as Gene Pritsker’s Hip-Hopsichord. In addition to frequently collaborating with Academy-Award-winning composer Tan Dun, Baczewska also has been a pioneer in the use of musical modalities such as LoFi (low fidelity) to ease sleep disturbances and enhance concentration (as in homework).
The Polish-born artist has not forsaken her classical roots, however, and has produced a 10-track album of Mozart favorites that should please traditionalists as well as more adventurous auditors.
The collection begins with the aforementioned 12 Variations on "Ah vous dirai-je, Maman,” also known as “Twinkle, twinkle, little star.” The sweet main theme may be the only sugary tidbit on this compilation, as Baczewska presents the subsequent variations like a series of mystifying card tricks. What, the listener may ask, will she have next up her black leather sleeve? The variations arise with a modern clarity and brisk attack, her fingers recoiling crisply from notes rather than dragging them along in reluctant legatos.
The album continues with three Piano Sonatas, numbers 16, 11, and 10 in that order. Nothing in this program is inappropriately romanticized, yet there is beauty and a palpable high regard for the ever-youthful Mozart, who, after all, was a teen pop star of sorts in his own time. She performs the first movement of the Sonata n° 16 in C major, well known for its music-box main tune, lightly but without frivolity. Composed a few years before his death, this Sonata contains formidable complexities, especially in the third movement.
The opening of the Sonata n° 11 is familiar to every child who has had a piano lesson, with its charming “Andante grazioso”, but the subsequent series of variations is not so easy to recall or interpret. In this recording, Baczewska’s playing is cradled in the purest of sound environments. There is a sense of closeness, as though one were sitting beside the artist. The Sonata ends with the quaint “Alla turca” which Baczewska brings to life with bouncy, almost harpsichord-like fingerings which made me think of Alice Ehlers performing on that instrument in the 1939 film of Wuthering Heights.
Concluding the album is the Sonata n° 10 in C major. Pianist and composer seem to be working together, from the frothy foam of notes breaking over the Alberti bass in the first movement to the smooth sustaining lines supporting the Sonata’s final breaths. There is nothing saccharine about the “Andante cantabile”, but it is elegant in a youthful sort of way, with an indefinable modern sensibility.
Baczewska ties all the pieces together with no discernable effort, but we know it is hard work to play Mozart as though one knows nothing else in the world. I can assure you, however, that this album will not be one of the LoFi delights that soothes people to sleep. Rather, it will make them sit up and pay notice.