Small Miracles, in Quick Succession: Listening to Mozart's Piano Concerti.
This past June, I embarked, more-or-less simultaneously, on two tasks in connection with my recording of Mozart's concerti Nos. 21 and 22: the editing of the recording itself, and the writing of the sleeve note. The former proved surprisingly straightforward: as the concerti had been recorded live, there was far less material to choose from than I'd had with my Beethoven and Schumann recordings.
The writing of the sleeve note, however, bedeviled me, and reducing it to the length necessary (1000 words, plus a few extras I'd bargained for) seemed impossible. Granted, my Beethoven and Schumann notes, in their first incarnations, were far longer than could be accommodated as well, but the process of paring them down was engaging and fruitful - the more detail I removed, the closer I felt I came to the essential points I wanted to make about the music. In some cases, it even helped me clarify for myself some of my feelings about the pieces.
With Mozart however, in trying to explicate and illustrate the wondrousness of the music, I found it extremely difficult to decide what was necessary and what was not.
In addition to whatever shortcomings of my writing this may have revealed, I think that this difficulty was connected to a fundamental way in which Mozart's music is different from that of the other masters.
(Warning: gross generalization ahead.) However beautiful or moving the detail may be in the music of Beethoven -- and it is frequently very beautiful and very moving -- these details are always subordinated to the architecture of the work. In other words, it is the overall shape of the piece -- the journey from the beginning to the end -- that gives the piece its power. In Mozart, however, if one's attention is focused only on structure, a huge proportion of the music's magic will go unnoticed.
This is, of course, overstating the case: just as Beethoven's music can be breathtakingly beautiful phrase for phrase, Mozart's pieces are often impressive as edifices. But it is really the way that his music unfolds moment by moment that makes Mozart unique.
So, having removed much of the synopsis from the sleeve note, I offer this complement, a catalogue of some of my favorite moments from these concerti. The list is necessarily incomplete; still, I hope it provides a window into my experience of Mozart's concerti, which have provided me with as much joy as any other pieces of music.
- In most every Mozart concerto, there is a moment in the opening tutti where I find myself completely swept away, breathless, marveling at how lucky I am to be able to play this music. In K 467 this moment comes midway through the tutti: the opening theme - a whispered two-bar motive with the feeling of an opera buffa's overture - returns, and becomes the basis of a little fugato amongst the strings. As the entrances pile on, the mood changes from expectant to triumphant, and the music builds to a thrilling climax. In Beethoven, this sort of thing would be minutes in the making; here, the entire build-up is eight measures long. No Mahler or Bruckner symphony, despite forces many times as large and movements many times as long, contains music more exhilarating.
Mozart: Piano Concerto No.21 in C K467 - I. Allegro maestoso (Track 1, 1:05-1:35)
- The element of surprise is one of the keys to the emotional power Mozart's music wields. When this moment arrives, the mood has been very dramatic; somehow, in the briefest of transitions, Mozart is able to instantly strip away the angst, leaving us with this theme, as ardent as it is simple. When I first heard this concerto, at age 5, this theme made a great impression on me; 23 years later, it seems no less extraordinary.
Mozart: Piano Concerto No.21 in C K467 - I. Allegro maestoso (Track 1, 3:48-4:09)
- Despite the constantly changing character of the music, most of K 467's first movement strikes me as positive music, which contributes to the effect this excerpt from the development section makes. After cycling through a succession of minor keys, each of which increases the level of unrest, Mozart gives us a passage of real despair, unlike anything else in the piece. In addition to its purely musical qualities, this passage makes my "favorites" list because it feels so wonderful to play: the orchestra becomes a sort of magic carpet, cushioning the piano sound, and making it soar in a way that probably should not even be possible.
Mozart: Piano Concerto No.21 in C K467 - I. Allegro maestoso (Track 1, 7:25-7:56)
- In truth, every single note of the slow movement of K 467 should make a "best of" list. So instead of picking one of the many "Countess" moments - phrases where the piano approximates, surprisingly successfully, one of Mozart's great heroines - or one of the dramatic climaxes, I've chosen to single out a transitional passage, more easily overlooked. Mozart is the greatest master of saying much with sparse materials, and this is a perfect example. The piano is playing a single line, the accompaniment is extremely simple, the dynamic level is very low. And yet with each turn of the phrase, there is an astonishing profundity. Music of this beauty and simplicity cannot be described with words...
Mozart: Piano Concerto No.21 in C K467 - II. Andante (Track 2, 2:06-2:40)
- Mozart is the truest conveyer of human emotion in sound, and one thing that means is that its emotionality is in a constant state of flux. This is true in the slow movements, and it is equally true - albeit in a very different way - in the lively ones. In this passage from K 467's finale, the character goes from carefree, to a bit wistful, to agitated, and back to carefree again, all in the course of 30 seconds. This is why playing Mozart requires the most hawk-like concentration of any composer: lose focus for a moment, and everything has shifted.
Mozart: Piano Concerto No.21 in C K467 - III. Allegro vivace assai (Track 3, 1:00-1:26)
- The first movement of K 482 has almost an overabundance of beautiful themes - at least four, by my count. Rather than single one out, I'll highlight a transitional passage - particularly in Mozart, where nothing is thrown away, or without great expressive value, transitional material, while challenging to the player, is richly rewarding. If a musicologist were to analyze the movement, this passage would probably be mentioned as a transition from one key to another - no more. But that would be to ignore the dialogue between piano and strings, the gorgeous series of suspensions, the endlessly engaging twists and turns of the piano line. I think it is this, above all, that makes Mozart both so rewarding and so challenging to play: there is so much meaning - and so many layers to the meaning - in each note. That meaning cannot - must not - go unacknowledged, but at the same time it cannot result in the music grinding to a halt. Wrestling with these dilemmas was one of the great pleasures and struggles I encountered in preparing for the recording.
Mozart: Piano Concerto No.22 in E flat K482 - I. Allegro (Track 4, 3:04-3:35)
- I have a tendency, following performances of K 482, to walk off stage, and ask -- the conductor, the stage crew, my shoes, whoever -- "how is it possible?" The "it" I am referring to is, above all, the smack-you-in-the-gut power of this music which is at the same time surpassingly elegant. And if there is one moment which exemplifies this combination of qualities, it is the coda of the slow movement. This moment, with its major/minor dialogue between winds and piano, was immediately encored at the work's premiere, and I will not cheapen its emotional impact with words. Let me say instead how thankful I am that exists, as it gives voice to something we all feel, but which us mere mortals lack the tools to express.
Mozart: Piano Concerto No.22 in E flat K482 - II. Andante (Track 5, 7:54- 8:27)
- My friends sometimes joke that all my favorite moments in music have an "it'll be alright, my child" flavor, and this one certainly fits the bill. The majority of the last movement of K 482 is so high-spirited, it doesn't really act as a commentary on the extraordinary events of the previous movement. But this central menuet - unhurried, stately, filled with grace, in the deepest sense of the word - becomes a kind of catharsis. And what a beautiful catharsis! As idiomatic as the piano writing is in this concerto, the wind writing is perhaps more beautiful still - listening to this passage, I bemoan the fact that I don't play the clarinet. Or the bassoon. Or...
Mozart: Piano Concerto No.22 in E flat K482 - III. Rondo: Allegro (Track 6, 5:10-5:37)
- In addition to being a genius, Mozart was a prankster, and throughout this concerto, he plays with our expectations - an extra theme in the first movement, a wind serenade in the middle of a tragic set of variations, a menuet in the middle of the finale... And the concerto concludes with the most inspired prank of them all - a prank of divine inspiration. Just as this energetic movement seems to be hurtling to a close, Mozart halts the proceedings ("I have something left to say!") and gives us eight bars of, what? They are nostalgic without being at all maudlin. Delicate without being at all precious. They serve as a summation, tying the whole work together, and yet are plenty extraordinary on their own merits. Rather than reach for new adjectives to describe this phrase, I'm going to go listen to it again: just like the rest of the music on this disc, familiarity has only increased my love for it.
Mozart: Piano Concerto No.22 in E flat K482 - III. Rondo: Allegro (Track 6, 11:10-11:33)