Avie Records AV 2105
Diapason March 2007
The judgement cast on the dust that collects on the shelves of a record collection is the severest of all. Not many pianists can avoid it with the sonatas of Mozart. Leon McCawley, British, born in 1973, 1st prize winner of the Beethoven Competition in Vienna, 2nd prize winner of the Leeds Competition, will not see that dust. It was however with great reluctance that I put the first CD of this collection into the CD player, thinking that I was going to have to hammer my way through five CDs of Mozart sonatas, unbelievably boring when they are badly played. Except I listened to these CDs one after another, marvelling at the naturalness, the inventiveness, the liveliness, the virtuosity, the tone of an inspired artist, and I have already listened to them again fully twice more! These sonatas are full of rosalies (Alberti basses, for example) where one does not really know what to do when one plays them: McCawley balances them with a melodious right hand as if it were nothing, neither accentuating too much nor merging into a vagueness where they would be forgotten. But beyond that, this pianist sings, breathes deeply, revives the discourse by utilising the symmetry and repetitions of which he is well aware. This is something that is not obvious, but nevertheless essential. His playing avoids all arrogance, all pretensions – and all false modesty. McCawley opens the theatre curtain wide when it is called for – and it is called for often in these works. These diverse sonatas (from the gallant style of the first ones to the counterpoint of the last, the smiles of the Minuet of KV 282 to the drama of the great A minor KV310) move along as vibrantly as under the fingers of Lili Krauss, all as full of unexpected action. Doubtless a hint less smiling and nonchalant. But all just as unpremeditated, all being more than one imagined.
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Pianist Magazine Feb-March 2007
Leon McCawley’s first smart move is to include in this impressive set a selection of miscellaneous keyboard pieces in which Mozart’s qualities shine more obviously: the Rondo in A minor, Fantasia in C minor and Adagio in B minor. Probably inspired by improvisations, these works show Mozart as a visionary noodler, often charting daring chromatic territory rarely associated with him- and certainly untypical of his sonatas.
As for those sonatas, McCawley approaches them with a genial simplicity that reveals them in their very best light. His playing has a delightful freshness and vivacity. Rather than pretend the pieces are more than they are, he trimphantly realises their modest ambitions through a flawless technique and refreshing lack of pretension. Be the sonatas what they may, this is as good as you will hear them.
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Hi Fi News February 2007
Indifferent cycles reinforce the notion that Mozart’s Piano Sonatas make poor listening; good ones, like Uchida’s or this new five-disc set from McCawley, scotch it. McCawley at times suggests an “orchestration” of the music, elsewhere a scaling down to fortepiano sonorities.
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Classic FM Magazine January 2007
McCawley’s marvellous Mozart
The British pianist Leon McCawley tackles the complete Mozart sonatas in the composer’s anniversary year. It’s a rewarding journey: McCawley captures with vivid tone, incisive articulation and passionate commitment, everything from the youthful exuberance of the Sonata No. 2, K280, to the near-operatic drama of the Sonata No. 8 K310, and the mellower world of the late works. His approach is rigorous and characterful, with pedal applied sparingly, and he never loses sight of the works’ sense of argument and rhetoric.
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All Music Guide
This complete cycle of Mozart piano sonatas, with some very desirable additions, has been winning raves in its native Britain, and it’s a pleasure to report that they’re fully justified. Class Leon McCawley’s interpretations of Mozart under two headings — under that of recordings that place the Mozart sonatas at the center of his output, instead of to the side where they have long resided, and under the more general heading of modern-instrument recordings influenced by the discoveries of period-instrument performers. Class them also as fully thought-out, technically unimpeachable performances of the first class. McCawley takes pains to make his piano sound nearly as smooth as a fortepiano, and to bring out small details hidden in the performances of pianists who bang away. He is alert to the distinctive textures of each sonata, drawing on the insight that Mozart’s keyboard textures developed hand in hand with his ability to exploit the large orchestral textures popularized by the Mannheim court orchestra and other virtuoso ensembles of the day. The bigger early sonatas, like the Piano Sonata in D major, K. 284, sound, as they should, like little keyboard symphonies. McCawley’s readings are clean, neither too fragile nor too romantic. He plays Mozart’s sonatas as serious works, but he has an admirable sense of when to back off and let the music speak for itself — especially nice is the K. 533 sonata (with its K. 494 completion) at the beginning of disc 5. The magnificent first movement, in which a seemingly inconsequential theme is unexpectedly shown to be the basis first for invertible counterpoint, then for a fugue, and then for some truly profound Bachian combinations of themes, profits handsomely here from McCawley’s decision to stay out of the music’s way. The more minimal Sonata in B flat, K. 570, is arrestingly graceful. A nice bonus is the inclusion of the Kleine Gigue, K. 574, a wonderful miniature that was a product of Mozart’s growing engagement with counterpoint; disc 5 is also filled out with some other fine but fairly obscure short pieces. The closing Adagio in B minor is a unique performance in which McCawley finds Mozart’s despair not in the attenuated opening phrase, but in its consequent phrase, and develops his interpretation from there. If you are new to Mozart sonatas, sample some fortepiano performances as well, perhaps by Malcolm Bilson or Siegbert Rampe. If the modern grand is more your speed, this new set can stand with any of the great recordings of the past.
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CD Review BBC Radio 3 December 30th 2006
Selected as one of the “Best of 2006” by Andrew MacGregor
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The Independent December 2 2006
Album of the week
This boxed set of these perfect gems is special. The playing of Leon McCawley, one of Britain’s brightest young pianists, is not just technically flawless, it also has a freshness. Mozart’s sonatas don’t have many notes, but that’s their challenge-to which he rises superbly, delivering sweet intimacy or orchestral richness as the occasion demands. A riveting box.
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International Record Review December 2006
Undertaking a complete cycle of Mozart’s solo keyboard sonatas on disc necessarily entails a number of key preliminary decisions. Matters both musical and editorial require to be addressed. Leon McCawley and his record company have evidently approached these tricky agenda seriously, and with a desire to be as consistent as possible. Let us survey some of their well-pondered answers.
Instrument: a modern concert grand, beautifully even across the entire range, naturally and neutrally recorded, i.e., neither in close-up nor in an empty hall or church but very clear and transparent and revealing every nuance of the playing. Mimimal use of the sostenuto pedal helps this process considerably.
Style: lean, efficient, fleet-fingered but never indulgently romantic or defiantly virtuosic, more controlled and restrained and understated. His articulation is satisfyingly crystalline. The transparency of the sound and playing is the most enjoyable feature of this release. Take as an isolated example the late Sonata K 576 in D. The Allegro is brisk but not rushed and retains elegance in the phrasing, the touching Adagio feels introspective but does not linger sentimentally: it sings like a flowing vocal line. The tempo for the concluding Allegretto is perfectly chosen and the playing, though suitably vigorous in places, never gets heavy.
Layout: five discs, in chronological and therefore Koechel-related order, with the occasional departure or interpolation. Thus the great A minor Rondo K 511 separates the c major and A major Sonatas, K 330 and K 331 respectively, on the third disc: a thoughtful decision.
Presentation: a stiff box with colour-coded discs inside, and a trilingual booklet, again unflashy. This contains a ten-page synoptic survey of the sonatas, by Malcolm McDonald. It is magisterial, not only detailing chronology and context with economical precision but similarly underscoring key musical points with non-technical analysis: a model of its kind, to match McCawley’s execution.
In summary, then: this set will do very nicely as a reference collection. I would sum it up as eminently natural, in very good taste.
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The Observer November 5th 2006
The Mozart glut of this 250th anniversary year continues with this fine recording of the complete sonatas by British pianist, Leon McCawley, who, in 1993, won Vienna’s Beethoven competition and came second in Leeds at the age of 19. Not hitherto known for his Mozart, McCawley shows both virtuoso muscularity and tender insights in a uniformly accomplished reading, which here surprises and there dazzles, without ever descending to vulgarity or exhibitionism. This superb set should propel McCawley towards the greater prominence he deserves.
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Music Web International November 2006
RECORDING OF THE MONTH
This is a magnificent achievement and illustrates firstly how much there is in Mozart’s piano sonatas and secondly what a very fine pianist is Leon McCawley. This set, competitively priced and in a slim-line box, should be regarded as of the top rank.
Here in Mozart’s 250th Anniversary year McCawley has set down all these works – plus some extras – in two sessions in a few months. McCawley is clearly a musician; much more than just a pianist.
Leon McCawley has clearly studied these Mozart works and despite recording them in a relatively short time is right inside them. Playing the five discs has been a sheer joy and I can’t imagine anybody being anything but blown away with his playing and understanding of Mozart’s development as a composer-pianist.
Leon McCawley also has a satisfying skill in neither embracing the “Dresden China” approach nor giving these late eighteenth century pieces the veneer and patina of late nineteenth!
Placing the sonatas in chronological order was revelatory and I realized on Disc One that I didn’t know these early pieces at all well. Quickly we see development from K 279 to maturity in the slow movement of K280. This latter work was a joyful discovery with two more serious movements followed by a cheerful presto contrasting with the sadness of the adagio. In K281 McCawley shows he understands its origins in the forte piano; I notice this was a comment on Alicia De Larrocha’s complete set which was so well received last year. Also the notes point out that Beethoven was influenced by the finale of K 282 when he wrote the “Moonlight”.
K284, which commences the second disc was another undiscovered gem. It’s wonderful with a wistful Rondo and Polonaise followed by a Theme and Variations in Mozart’s longest piano movement. Many may start with K309 and K311, both full of Mozartian wit and I must mention Schnabel’s comment that “Mozart is too easy for children and too difficult for adults”. This came to me strongly during the “allegro con spirito” of K309. What spirit McCawley conveys in a strong and not inappropriate manner. By this stage I was totally won over but I was intrigued how I’d compare his renditions of sonatas I’ve known and loved for over 35 years.
Watchers of that splendid film “A room with a view” will recall Helena Bonham-Carter firing away at the beginning of K310’s “Allegro maestoso”. My definitive version has always been Lipatti’s recording from 1950, but McCawley is so very good and brings his own character to this marvellous work aided by the splendid sound; not the first fine record to emanate from Potton Hall! I’m sure if you hear this one movement you will want to get this great value collection. Comparing De Larrocha shows almost identical timings but it’s interesting how McCawley is forceful from the off whereas the older artist presents a slightly more restrained account; good though it is and also deserving of a detailed listen. This sonata is a good riposte to those who question why one wants more than one version of the same piece. Playing these two side by side illustrates why! However the comfort is that, apart from the time-to-listen factor, both sets will give you differing insights into Mozart and take up little room on your shelf nor remove much from your wallet!
Disc Three will probably be played first by many as it sees very familiar pieces loved and performed by pianists both professional and amateur. I love McCawley’s way with K330 where he stays true to the music whilst adding his own felicities to the score. I’m always reminded of Horowitz playing this piece on his return to Moscow in 1986 but this is a version of the top rank to be enjoyed differently but at the same level. K331 begins with the sublime variations which were later “over-done “by Max Reger as an orchestral piece. I reviewed Wilhelm Kempff earlier this year in this piece and found that this superb pianist seemed to be viewing Mozart from a late nineteenth century viewpoint. This is not the case here. The playing is staggering but the youthful quality of the Salzburg genius is all- present. K331 and K332 are also on this disc which makes a wonderful recital of its own.
The later works are sometimes overlooked by some but on Disc Four we have the more contemplative K333 which is given a most moving rendition. The so-called “easy” sonata K545 is another pearl. On the final disc the later sonatas come through as masterpieces of the genre but I found no longueurs throughout the five discs. My regret is that I have only had time to skim the surface of the delights of this set. I must leave you to discover how great an achievement it is.
Listening to this collection has been an immense privilege and I strongly recommend the set to all lovers of great music. It has been one of the most enjoyable experiences listening to McCawley and this box is bound to end up in my “Records of the Year”.
David R Dunsmore
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The Times October 13th 2006
A test case for any Mozart pianist is the first movement of K331. Are the notes pecked at, or do they fly? McCawley makes them fly. Throughout this complete five-CD set the British pianist steers a happy course between the precious and the mechanical, bringing out the sonatas’ wit and textures. Some might miss interpretative quirks, but for long-term listening there’s a virtue in a safe pair of hands. The piano’s handsome, and the recording warm.
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Metro October 9th 2006
The enjoyable five-CD set Mozart: The Piano Sonatas continues Leon McCawley’s fruitful relationship with the record label Avie. Here is playing of the highest calibre that is both insightful and unshowy, and which combines muscularity and delicacy- all-important ingredients for a successful Mozart performance. He also carefully treads a middle path between Mitsuko Uchida’s Olympian restraint (which some find cool) and Daniel Barenboim’s more personal style (which some find indulgent). His performance of the fiery Sonata in C minor K457, for example, is decidedly unhistrionic and yet causes the sparks to fly. And I particularly like the teasing way he almost imperceptibly holds back before the climax of some of the phrases for emphasis. Once or twice his chords aren’t placed with laser-precision, but otherwise this is a fine showing from a fine pianist.