Mozart Complete Piano Sonatas (released 2010)

The Sunday Times, 11 December 2011

No. 5 on the list of 20 Top Classical Albums of 2011

Pienaar casts fresh light on this once neglected but now frequently recorded oeuvre for solo piano, in highly individual and brilliantly played performances.

The Sunday Times, 9 January 2011

5 stars, CD of the week

The South Africa-born pianist is a new name to me, but he already has acclaimed recordings of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier and Goldberg Variations for small independent labels to his credit, and this Mozart, recorded at the Duke's Hall, in the Royal Academy of Music, in 2008 and 2009, strikes me as one the most completely satisfying surveys of this still undervalued music ever committed to disc. In an eloquent essay, he points out that Mozart's solo piano music may not be central to his output, as it was for Beethoven, but he refuses to undersell even the early Salzburg sonatas. He delivers these with a brio and delicacy – his touch is perfect in the lovely andante amoroso of the B-flat sonata, K. 281 – that ideally captures their rococo innocence. When he moves to the Mannheim and Paris sonatas of 1777-78, we are in a different world, more emotionally turbulent (the stormy A minor sonata looked forward to the tragic drama of Idomeneo) and experimental. This is Mozart on the threshold of his genius; Pienaar responds with an astonishing range of expression and colour. I can think of no recent set that takes the music so honestly at face value: he never patronises the famous (and simple) C major Sonata "For Beginners", but makes the dramatic C minor work sound like a close relative to the D minor Concerto, and the two final masterpieces, K570 in B-flat and K576 in D, are magisterial. Even if you are sated with Radio 3's wall-to-wall Mozartiana, you'll find consistent insight and refreshment.

- Hugh Canning

Gramophone, February 2011

Editor's choice

This is one of those lovely surprises. A comparatively little-known pianist (though he has received very good notices in these pages before) ventures on to well-trodden ground and immediately finds his own distinctive path. These are performances that manage at once to feel both contemporary and true to the spirit of past ages. Pienaar is not afraid to employ the odd trick for effect, but what effects they are!

- The Editor

Daniel-Ben Pienaar could not have started better, not by playing, but by saying, "It is inescapable that a performance practice for these works that engages the instrument's full expressive potential needs to look beyond easy categories of 'authentic', or 'modern' or 'historically informed'". Quite – but that is not all, so read his booklet-note first.

One factor strikes immediately: there is not a whiff of bygone reverential, even obsequious attitudes to Mozart that still cast faint shadows among some pianists. Pienaar is therefore "modern" in his discernment of the music. But – how is this for a 19th-century throwback? – Pienaar de-synchronises the hands, though selectively so.... The staggered articulation is not a mere anachronism. It becomes a subtle aspect of a range of expression Pienaar uses to penetrate music "very rich in activity, rich in personality and topoi". Point and purpose explained. And totally disdained is "facile stereotype of Mozart as the epitome of elegance".

Of the utmost importance in conveying convictions is Pienaar's strong independent left hand. It tightens harmonic tension and supports rather that accompanies treble lines. Be it high drama or lyrical contemplation, Pienaar scans phrases with a fluidity that releases the music from inertia. Ignore the odd insignificant pianistic smudge, because keyboard prowess is formidable. But as his performance of the Alla turca Sonata, K331, shows, technique isn't allowed to edge ahead of emotional and intellectual depth. Pienaar pays attention to the oft-forgotten grazioso element in the first movement, eschews metrical stiffness in the Minuet, yields to the Trio's distinctive flow and refuses to turn the March into a janissary bash. Extend such thoughtful, profound probity to the whole set and you have interpretations where within the letter critically observed, a numinous potency breaks free. Momentous Mozart.

- Nalen Anthoni

Classic FM Magazine, March 2011

5 stars, Editor’s Choice

Mozart’s piano sonatas, which fill five generous discs, often get short shrift compared to his larger-scale works. Designed for smaller, quieter instruments than the modern concert grand, they are often misrepresented as tinkling diversions. South African Daniel-Ben Pienaar reveals Mozart’s sonatas in aural technicolour. Pienaar treats the sonatas with an emotional seriousness that’s more usually reserved for concertos and operas. At his best he’s sensational: the C minor Fantasy and Sonata, for instance, plunges into a profound drama that seems straight out of Don Giovanni. He brings to each a strongly defined, individual character; try the feverish A minor K310 or the generous, mellifluous B flat K333. Pienaar delves into the sonatas’ depths with honesty and directness. Although he gives us his personal responses with uninhibited feeling, he is never less than faithful to Mozart’s writing. In the earlier sonatas Pienaar finds a raw emotional authenticity of response: the sicilienne slow movement of K280 comes over as classic tragedy. He delivers dazzling fingerwork aplenty in playing that’s fearsomely intelligent, articulate, insightful and, though very personal, so musically clued-in that it rings true to Mozart’s spirit. Others might obsess over historically informed articulation and phrasing; for Pienaar these are passing details en route to a musical end. It’s the philosophical whole, the big picture and grand span of musical thought that stands out. It might not please every listener, but this set blew my socks off.

- Jessica Duchen

Fanfare (USA)

Mozart’s eighteen piano sonatas, ranging from the early galant works to the masterpieces of the middle and late 1780s, are a cornerstone of the repertoire. All of them are beautifully written for the keyboard and the best reflect the elegance, nuances, and perfect proportions of the Viennese Classical style. They move with ease from good humor to profundity and from flamboyant virtuosity to intense pathos. Fine complete recordings have been made by Arrau, Eschenbach, Haebler (twice), Horszowski, DeLarrocha, Klien, Kraus, Pires (twice), Schiff, Uchida, and Zacharias, to list my favorites; and by such fortepianists as Badura-Skoda (twice), Bilson, Brautigam, Lubimov, and Sémerjian.

Daniel-Ben Pienaar, a young South African pianist trained principally at London’s Royal Academy of Music (where he now teaches), is the latest to join this elite company. We learn little about him from the booklet, which mentions that he has performed the major sonatas of Schubert and Mozart often in England, and that his other recordings include the complete keyboard works of Orlando Gibbons, Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, and the Chopin Ballades. His recording presents the Mozart sonatas chronologically, which is how I will discuss them. It is, quite simply, one of the finest complete recordings I know.

CD 1 (K 279-K 283) contains works that may have been conceived for the harpsichord and which Mozart is thought to have written down after having performed them on his tours. Pienaar plays them with appropriate clarity and charm in the fast movements (notably the finales of K 281 and K 283) and with welcome pianistic warmth in the slow ones (especially those in K 280 and 282). His pedaling is usually spare, his articulation clean, and his dynamics nicely scaled down. The playing is musicianly and natural, never studied or precious.

CD 2 (K 284, K 309, K 310, K 311) takes us into a bolder world, with operatic musical gestures and writing that is idiomatic for the developing piano of the time. Possibly Mozart’s finest set of variations concludes the Sonata in D, K 284, and Pienaar plays it with obvious love and attention to detail: subtle variations of touch, perfect judgment of subito piano effects, attention to melodic and harmonic direction, an avoidance of downbeat accents, and an easy projection of the more virtuosic moments as well as of the lovely cantabile of Variation 11. The highlight of any survey should be the intensely dramatic Sonata in A Minor, K 310—and that’s the case with the performance here. He projects a real sense of urgency in the dramatic opening movement and manages to get all the tricky balances and dynamics just right. The development is gripping and on-going, and the arrival of the recapitulation is almost frightening in its inevitability. The slow movement moves naturally, every detail in place but not calling attention to itself, the middle section urgent without forcing, and the return to the main theme serene and consoling. The finale is not just fast but driving and full of inner life. This is surely one of the finest recordings of this work, to rank with Lipatti’s and Kraus’s. The other works on this disc are more decorous and straightforward, but they get the same amount of musical attention—and a highlight is the finale of K 311, which is infectiously joyous, almost giddy.

CD 3 (K 330, K, 331, K 332, K 333) contains works that every Mozartean loves, although I don’t think that they are quite top-drawer. I like the way the tempos of the slow movements ebb and flow, as an aria might under a great conductor. The momentary lapses into a minor key (e.g., K 330) are made especially touching by of their utterly simple delivery. The lilting tempo of the opening theme of K 331 is perfect, and the successive variations have character without exaggeration of touch, dynamics, or tempo. I don’t agree with the quasi-detached left-hand accompaniment in the opening of the slow movement K 332 (Mozart’s slurs are authentic)—a small point, considering the lovely projection of the melody above it. The finale of this sonata is as fast, clear, and witty as one could want. K 333 is a joy from beginning to end, not even the fastest notes thrown away, the melodies always flowing naturally “like oil” (as they said of Mozart’s own playing).

CD 4 (K 475/457, K 533/494) takes us higher still, including the stormy Sonata in C Minor K 457, preceded by the Fantasy in the same key that was published with it, possibly meant as a kind of prelude. Pienaar paces the Fantasy well, playing with full-bodied pianism, building to exciting climaxes in the two allegro sections, and keeping the slower sections flowing. There is some occasional slight non-syncronization of the hands, but this doesn’t become bothersome. The first movement of the sonata follows without pause and is played in one long breath, with Beethovenian sonorities and meaningful rests. The finale is fast and with plenty of bite. Throughout the brilliant first movement of K 533 there is wonderful clarity and independence of the hands. The music-making is as exhilarating here as it is delightfully naïve-sounding in the finale (K 494).

CD 5 (K 545, K 570, K 576) begins with the familiar Sonata in C, a work studied by every aspiring young pianist. The notes are relatively few here and in the wonderful K 570, and Pienaar plays both of them with disarming simplicity and obvious affection. I like his tempos for the slow movements, which flow naturally and never bog down. The set concludes with K 576, one of the most pianistically challenging in the series. Pienaar plays it with great clarity and lightness, characterizing each theme duly but without exaggeration and responding to the particular chromaticism of this late music in very subtle ways. His light-fingered sprint through the finale sounds effortless and leaves a broad smile on the listener’s face.

In short, Daniel-Ben Pienaar has given us a completely satisfying account of this music, and there is not a weak moment in the lot. Not only does he play the piano brilliantly, but he also plays with a full appreciation of the operatic qualities of the music and with the mercurial changes of mood and touch. We hear solos, dialogues, trios, and choruses and never just the note-spinning of lesser Mozarteans. I place this complete recording on the level of the ones by Uchida and Pires, and in some individual sonatas I would say it is even higher. An added bonus is his extensive essay in the booklet, full of insight and a model of its kind. The recorded sound is excellent, close but not dry. I recommend this set without reservation.

– Charles Timbrell

The Independent, 8 January 2011

Album of the week

As a professor at the Royal Academy, Pienaar writes illuminatingly about these underrated works. He brings out the operatic quality of some of the first-movement themes, and makes the Rondo alla Turca sound like a marching band; his interpretations are provocative and always interesting.

- Michael Church

MusicWeb International

Bargain of the Month

Hesitate not - this really is new Mozart.

....I still very much admire [Uchida's] solo Mozart playing, but each time I return to one of these pieces after hearing Daniel-Ben Pienaar she seems entirely blown out of the water. You may not always want high drama in your Mozart, but when it comes to something like the Fantasie K475 in C minor it’s like discovering an entirely new piece.

....the plain truth is I think Daniel-Ben Pienaar’s Mozart piano sonatas could entirely revolutionise the way you experience these pieces, and indeed Mozart in general. There is so much about Mozart that we think we know; impressions and perceptions more often than not gained from the tourist sales-brochure idea most people will give you if asked on the street. Historical truth can teach us more, and there is a deal more information around for those who are willing to make just a little more effort. What Daniel-Ben Pienaar teaches us is that there is a good deal more mud and substance to Mozart’s piano sonatas than most of us suspected, and as a result he has given us a cycle which will make it tough to return to old favourites....

I have to say I am surprised and delighted by this cycle of Mozart’s piano sonatas: surprised by the amount of substance and sheer musical grit I’ve missed in so many other performances, and delighted to discover so much more Mozart I had previously felt carried less musical muscle than, say, the piano concertos. Pienaar knows how to point a wise finger to the heart of each movement of each sonata....

– Dominy Clements

Diapason (France), Mars 2011

5 Diapasons

Daniel-Ben Pienaar n'est pas un débutante au disque. Il s'était déjà distingué par un enregistrement du Clavier bien tempéré et s'était aventuré dans la musique de Gibbons. Tout au long de cette intégrale des sonates de Mozart en registrée en deux sessions s'impose un jeu net et vigoureux, déterminé, un goût patent pour la vitesse et, à l'occasion, pour l'ivresse qu'elle procure. A cette allure (et les andantes seront vraiment andante), la priorité est de rester intelligible et maître des ses doigts, deux qualités que Pienaar possède au plus point. Non seulement son toucher offre une précision inépuisable (Rondo de la KV 281) mais encore il excelle à s'appuyer avec élégance sur la moindre appoggiature, sur le plus discret ornement (quels trilles!) pour rebondir et rehausser le ciselé rythmique de la phrase (premier mouvement de la KV 279). Ici la vivacité n'empêche pas une construction claire et nettement campée (Presto de la KV 280); on pense quelquefois aux Mozart si enlevés de Clara Haskil...

Daniel-Ben Pienaar ne cherche pas à travers ces sonates une gammes de sentiment, ni même d'affects subjectifs, mais plûtot un éventail de formes, de figures musicales qu'il importe de faire ressortit de manière aussi nette et caractérisée que possible. Avec son analyse rigoureuse du texte et sa technique aiguisée, il débusque les fulgurances qui émallent ces sonates (Presto de la KV 283). Outre une belle indépendance de la main gauche, qui contribue à la dynamique puissante et variée du jeu, on mentionnera aussi la façon dont il se sert parfois du décalage entre les deux mains pour créer un surcroît de tension et souligner l'harmonie (Fantaisie KV 475).

Par sa dextérité et sa verve rythmique, il confère à l'instrument une vélocité mordante qu'on croyait l'apanage du pianoforte (Allegro assai de la Sonate KV 332). D'une grande probité stylistique malgré son penchant pour la virtuosité, cette intégrale apporte la preuve que le piano moderne, sans se renier, n'est pas un obstacle pour une approche éminemment dynamique, idiomatique, sobre et élégante de la musique pour clavier de Mozart.

– Jean-Marie Piel

Rondo Magazin (Germany), Oktober 2011

CD of the Month

Ob irgendein Hörer oder Kritikerkollege den Namen Daniel-Ben Pienaar schon einmal gehört hat? Konzertauftritte des jungen, in London unterrichtenden Südafrikaners scheint es auch dort kaum zu geben, allenfalls ein paar CDs bei den obskursten Labels – und plötzlich kommt, wie aus dem Nichts, diese unfassliche Aufnahme aller Klaviersonaten Mozarts. Ein Wunder, nicht weniger. Am Anfang fehlte mir noch der Glaube. Desynchronisierte Hände in langsamen Sätzen, romantisch pedalsatter Klavierton, viele Rubati – schon wieder ein manierierter Effekthascher? Aber dieses stilistische Fluktuieren hat Methode. Pienaars Mozart trägt die Patina der Interpretationsgeschichte und er thematisiert ihre Wandlungen mit geradezu dekadentem Raffinement – übrigens auch in einem brillanten Essay im Textheft. So scheint er durch alle historischen Horizonte vom plüschigen, nervös nuancierenden „langen“ 19. Jahrhundert durch die attische Gieseking-Grazie zur neusachlichen Spröde zu wandern und aus diesen Klangerinnerungen einen individuellen, rhetorischen Stil zu destillieren, dessen Ideal die Mozartsche opera buffa ist. Pienaar singt seine Themen nicht nur vollendet phrasierend aus – das konnten schon andere –, er setzt sie in Szene wie ein Regisseur: Man meint förmlich zu hören, wie sich markant gefärbte Klangcharaktere die Bälle zuspielen. So sind die raschen Sätze von geradezu dämonischer Launenhaftigkeit, sprühend vor Geist oder auch motorisch entfesselt, wie das atemberaubend durchhetzte Finale der a-Moll-Sonate. Die langsamen Sätze sind als herrliche Gesangsszenen ausgebreitet. Liebevoll formt Pienaar die Schnörkel des Porträts der von Mozart umschwärmten Rose Cannabich im Andante der Sonate KV 309 nach, das Adagio des frühen KV 280 gewinnt geradezu Schubertschen Tiefgang – und wie Mozart hier das fis-Moll-Siciliano des Konzertes KV 488 vorausahnt, ist mir noch nie aufgefallen. Und noch im leidgehörten Variationssatz der „Alla turca-Sonate“ erreicht er ein Maß an beredter Überraschungslust, die keine Grenzen zu kennen scheint und uns geradezu beschwört, man höre das zum ersten Male. Kein Takt dieses Zyklus, der nicht beseelt, glitzernd und wie neu wäre. Vielleicht liegt Pienaars Geheimnis in seiner höchst individualisierenden Vereinnahmung noch des Formelhaftesten – und es ist ja viel Formelhaftes in diesen Stücken. So erzählt er die zentrale und oft allzu unbeachtete Mozart-Geschichte nach: wie sich der unendliche Vorrat des Konventionellen ganz subtil ins Persönlichste wandelt. Eine interpretatorische Sensation, die noch dem blasiertesten Kenner die Sprache verschlagen wird.

- Matthias Kornemann

Spiegel (KulturSpiegel)

Bislang kennen den Südafrikaner Daniel-Ben Pienaar international nur wenige. Das könnte seine wie vom Himmel gefallene Mozart-Gesamtaufnahme nun ändern: Der Dozent an der Royal Academy of Music in London, technisch exzellent, bringt trotz der eher rasanten Tempi jeden Satz individuell zum Sprechen, fein balanciert zwischen historischer Bewusstheit und der enormen Bandbreite des modernen Flügels.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer

Daniel-Ben Pienaar, a South African-born pianist who teaches at London's Royal Academy of Music, brings a masterful blend of interpretive finesse and technical elan to the complete Mozart piano sonatas. Performing on a modern piano with superb elasticity, he explores a vast spectrum of dynamics and details as he makes his chronological way through 18 works of greatly varying character. Mozart's ability to probe every corner of the human soul is thrillingly alive in these performances.

- Donald Rosenberg