Saturday, 28 April 2007

Mozart piano recital, Monday 13 March 2006

Peterhouse Music Society, Monday 13 March 2006, 8.30 p.m.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91)

Fantasia in D minor, KV 397/385g (c.1782)
Andante–Adagio–Presto–Tempo primo–Presto–Tempo primo–Allegretto

Minuet in D major, KV 335/576b (c.1789)

Adagio in B minor, KV 540 (19 March 1788)

Sonata in B flat major, KV 333/315c (November 1783)
I. Allegro
II. Andante cantabile
III. Allegretto grazioso

Rondo in A minor, KV 511 (11 March 1787)

Mark Berry (pianoforte)


That Mozart is the pre-eminent composer of the piano concerto no informed listener would deny. He did not invent the form; that honour, whatever the monstrous regiment of ‘authenticists’ might howl, falls to Bach. Yet he brought it, in his series of mature concertos, to a level which occasionally – very occasionally – has been matched, but which, in attaining perfection, shall never be surpassed. His works for solo piano have never been quite so highly regarded; nor, I suspect, will they ever be. An examination question cited by the late Denis Matthews once asked candidates to present a defence of the Mozart piano sonatas. That brilliant master of perversity, Glenn Gould, recorded a good few of them in order to show how terrible he considered them to be.

However – and I am sure that any reader having progressed thus far will have been expecting an ‘however’ – Mozart’s œuvre for solo piano contains riches indeed. Aside from juvenilia, there is not a single piece which fails to warrant regular performance. Those chosen for tonight’s recital run an extraordinary gamut of emotion, from the cheerful extroversion of the B flat sonata’s concerto-style finale to the Mahlerian desolation of the B minor Adagio. These works cry out to us for a public role; for, since the dawn of Romanticism, private thoughts have been a staple of our public discourse. Moreover, there is a severe limit to how ‘private’ works written down for publication may reasonably be considered to be. These are works written for private or domestic performance, but so what? To restrict them to the role of ‘teaching pieces’ is barely less criminal a restriction than that of Mozart’s music to ‘period instruments’, whose supersession the composer invariably welcomed, and which in any case are now almost without exception replicas, performed upon in circumstances wholly unrecognisable to the composer. Either path is as desirable as revival of ‘period dentistry’. Mozart’s piano works present challenges and rewards to performers and listeners as daunting and yet as pleasurable as almost any other section of the repertoire. As Artur Schnabel once remarked, ‘children are given Mozart because of the quantity of the notes; grown-ups avoid him because of the quality of the notes, which to be sure, is elusive.’ Elusive, yes, but worth seeking, however far short any mere mortal will necessarily fall. These are works which, to evoke Schnabel again, are better than they can be played, and yet there is only loss in declining to play them.

The D minor Fantasia is a striking example of Mozart’s improvisatory style. It doubtless falls short of what Mozart himself would have done, yet, like his written-down cadenzas for the concertos, affords us a glimpse of true Mozartian improvisation. What a journey is travelled from the C.P.E. Bachian arpeggios of the introduction, through the demonic D minor cascades of the Presto sections – which remind us that this will be the key of Don Giovanni and the tonality so beloved of the Second Viennese School – to the utopian image of a righted world in the D major Allegretto. (This despite the fact that its slightly perfunctory completion is the work of a pupil; it seems likely that experience of Mozart’s own practice will have informed this completion – just as in the more celebrated example of the Requiem.) There remain shadows of ambivalence; unlike Haydn or Beethoven, Mozart is never straightforwardly affirmative.

The original Köchel number of the Minuet is misleading, for this is one of Mozart’s last works for piano solo, not that anyone playing or hearing the work could ever seriously have doubted it. Its combination of sinuous chromatic line and extreme chromatic harmony, coupled with the typically ‘late’ absorption in neo-Bachian counterpoint impart a particular fascination. The opening bass line is odd indeed, rendering tonality uncertain in a fashion one might consider more redolent of the late nineteenth century, or even the early twentieth. No false consolation is provided by the harshness of the harmonic clashes, yet the charm and simplicity of the D major closing bars caution us against excessively Romantic subjectivism. To keep in check is not to evade. The stylised, mediated nature of the dance reminds one of the early dodecaphonic Schoenberg, as does the near-contemporary Gigue, KV 574, with its twelve-note flirtations. There is ordo ab chao, yet a slightly neo-classical order, which encompasses rather than eradicates that which has gone before. The minuet is, to employ that indispensable German word, aufgehoben.

And so to the great Adagio: certainly a work ‘better than it can be played’. It is also a work, at least in its Platonic idea, which cannot be played too slowly. The dictates of pre-Elysian performance, however, require that one play it somewhat faster than the ideal. B minor is a rare key indeed, which almost inevitably recalls the Adagio that ends Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony. Here, however, emotion is restrained and therefore all the more powerful. To be sure, this is a desolate landscape, pointing us towards the existential devastation of Schubert’s Winterreise or even Mahler. Yet every bit as startling is Mozart’s harmonic economy. Whilst there is much chromaticism, it is not so extreme, so disorienting as is sometimes the case in Mozart’s music. He never does more than is necessary, which renders the heartbreak of the recapitulation’s Neapolitan passage all the more telling. The B major postlude offers us ambiguous, Schubertian repose; once again, there are no easy answers.

The Sonata in B flat provides a necessary foil to such intensity. If I describe it as ‘lighter’, this is not intended as a value-judgement, nor does it preclude consideration of sterner moments. String-like textures abound, especially in the first two movements, providing some tricky moments for the performer in adapting them to the keyboard. What might sound like an Alberti bass at the very opening is in fact nothing of the kind; it is more akin to a viola part. Both the Allegro and the Andante cantabile are in sonata form, some indication of its versatility in the right hands: this is decidedly form, not formula. The slow movement is permeated by the world of opera; indeed, it would not be exaggerated to consider it an aria. Vocal decoration in the recapitulation underlines this point. The chromatic pathos of the development section reminds us that Figaro, and the Countess in particular, will soon be knocking on the door. Mozart’s finale is to all intents a concerto rondo, with the piano assuming both solo and orchestral roles. Indeed, there is even a written-out cadenza, introduced by the traditional orchestral half-close. Mozart is having fun here, whilst reminding us that he does not need an orchestra to provoke such extrovert high spirits. Tenderness is here in abundance too, as the subdominant colouring of the final bars makes clear.

The final piece, however, is a very different rondo. We return to a decidedly ‘late’ style, one which apparently encompasses all the aspects of Mozart’s humanity considered so far – above all, its profound ambiguity and ambivalence. The Rondo in A minor is perhaps his single greatest work for solo piano. Everything is perfectly in place, in terms of texture, form, and emotional requirements. The music is often highly chromatic, and wanders into remote keys without ever losing sense of return, however distant, to the home tonality. Highly chromatic too is the melodic line of the rondo theme, which suggests a vast range of harmonic possibilities, all to be explored in good time. Bach has made his imprint here. Textures can be quite complex, though never unnecessarily so, again recalling Bach, but also looking forward to Chopin, Brahms, Wagner, and even Berg. Counterpoint is not an outward sign of learning, as it is on occasion in the works written just after Mozart encountered the music of Bach and Handel; it is the absolutely necessary form of musical expression at particular moments. The A major episode, like the major-key episodes in minor-key works heard earlier, brings into view new possibilities, in this case vistas of ravishing beauty. And yet, we know very well that the tonality of the home key is to return. The noble, almost Grecian passion of Mozartian tragedy is unmistakeable in the closing bars. This is what eighteenth-century operatic convention would not quite permit him to accomplish in Idomeneo, with its superfluous closing ballet. No one else could have penned this truly great music.

Mark Berry, March 2006

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