Pianist Craig Nies was back in his tuxedo on Friday, engaging once again in his apparent life-long quest to play every piece of music mentioned in the 29-volume New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
For his latest project, Nies is joining violinist Carolyn Huebl to perform all 16 of Mozart’s mature violin sonatas (the 16 additional violin sonatas that Mozart wrote before the age of 10 have been judiciously left off the program). Nies and Huebl, both long-time professors at the Blair School of Music, performed the first installment of four sonatas at Ingram Hall on Friday. They’ll continue with the series on Oct. 26, March 29 and April 17.
This Mozart project presents a couple of problems. For starters, only one of Mozart’s 16 sonatas is written in a minor key, so creating varied, interesting programs out of an otherwise featureless landscape of C major and G major is a huge challenge. The second problem is of Nies’ and Huebl’s own making, namely, their decision to play this intimate 18th-century drawing room music in the cavernous space of Ingram Hall.
Neither challenge was completely conquered on Friday. In lieu of a program that contrasted moods and colors, Nies and Huebl went the intellectual route, playing pieces that seemed to go together because of structural similarities. The first and second halves of the program, for instance, both opened with two-movement sonatas (Sonata in G major, K. 379 and Sonata in C major, K. 303) that had slow introductions. The two halves ended with large-scale works (Sonata in D major, K. 306 and Sonata in B-flat major, K. 454) that were both remarkable for their brilliant effects.
The duo made no attempt to deliver intimate, historically authentic performances, likely a wise choice in such a big hall. Mozart’s violin sonatas are notable for the difficulty of the piano parts, and Nies gave the music a thoroughly modern spin, playing with dazzling virtuosity and a big tone (which had a tendency to obscure the much less active violin).
Huebl, for her part, did give 18th-century performance practice an obligatory nod, playing with a pure sound produced with minimal vibrato. She was at her best in slow movements, especially in the D major and B-flat sonatas, playing with enough color, nuance and dynamic control to make this music seem downright operatic.
The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth once insisted that Mozart’s music was the only soundtrack heard in heaven. Huebl’s slow movements were enough to turn even a hardened classical-phobe into a Mozart born again.