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Mozart à la Mode

Mozart, Piano Concertos No. 20 in D minor, K. 466, and No. 21 in C, K. 467 conducted by John Eliot Gardiner

with Malcolm Bilson, fortepiano, and English Baroque Soloists,
Archiv, CD 419 609-2

Mozart, Piano Concertos No. 22 in E flat, K. 482, and No. 23 in A, K. 488 conducted by John Eliot Gardiner

with Malcolm Bilson, fortepiano, and English Baroque Soloists,
Archiv, CD 423 595-2

Mozart, Piano Concertos No. 25 in C, K. 503, and No. 26 in D, K. 537 conducted by John Eliot Gardiner

with Malcolm Bilson, fortepiano, and English Baroque Soloists,
Archiv, CD 423 119-2

Mozart and Schnabel, Vol. II, Piano Concerto No. 20

with the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Walter Susskind
Arabesque, CD Z6591

Mozart and Schnabel, Vol. II, Piano Concerto No. 21

with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent
Arabesque, CD Z6591

Mozart and Schnabel, Vol. II, Sonata No. 12 in F, K. 332

with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent
Arabesque, CD Z6591

Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 26 in D, K. 537, and Rondos, K. 382 and 386

with Murray Perahia, piano and, the English Chamber Orchestra.
CBS Masterworks, CD MK 39224

Mozart, Piano Concertos No. 23 in A, K. 488, and No. 27 in B flat, K. 595

with Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano and, the Philharmonia Orchestra.
London, CD 499 087-2

Several complete or nearly complete recordings of Mozart’s piano concertos are listed as available—though whether you will be able to find them at your local record store, or even order them, is another question. What you are more likely to find are CD reissues of famous old Mozart performances: performances by Schnabel, Casadesus, Lipatti, Michelangeli, Clara Haskil, Myra Hess, Clifford Curzon, and others, none of them much improved by digital remastering. The first to issue a complete Mozart set was Alfred Brendel, whose ten CDs span the transition from the analogue to the digital eras (1970–1984). He has been followed by Murray Perahia, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and, most recently, Malcolm Bilson.1

The Bilson series has stimulated occasional gusts of interest ever since the first disc, featuring Concerto No. 9 in E flat, K. 271 (“Jeunehomme”), was issued in 1983. The impending completion of the series allows for a comprehensive appraisal of Bilson’s enterprise. As a Mozart player Bilson stands up very well, I believe, not only to his more renowned contemporaries, but also to the venerable and revered remastered masters. His achievement has a good deal to tell us about the current scene in musical performance, as I shall try to suggest later.

Most of Mozart’s thirty-odd piano concertos and concerto rondos were written in the 1780s, the last decade of his life, after he had broken away from his traditional position as provincial court servant and set himself up as a freelance composer and performer in Josephine Vienna. Brillant successes were matched by depressing failures; his final success—Die Zauberflöte—came just too late and he died young, of course, in straitened circumstances. Among his earlier successes were a run of Akademien, or subscription concerts, which he was able to set up, most of them featuring concertos.

With these concertos, Mozart attempted to make the scene in music’s capital city. On one level, the inner drama of concerto relationships invites a metaphorical reading as one person’s effort to gain acceptance from the group. On another level, the concerto is the genre which more than any other (even opera) was fine-tuned by its composer to dazzle and delight his contemporaries.

That the Mostly Mozart audiences of today are pleased by exactly what the composer wrote to please his own paying public must count as a mysterious circumstance, possibly even an ominous one. Our special empathy for these works is much less easy to understand than the lack of interest in them during the nineteenth century. Only one concerto survived in the repertory for very long after Mozart’s death, the turbulent Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466, and it has had to pay a price for its solitariness, as Charles Rosen observed:

The D minor Concerto is almost as much myth as work of art: when listening to it, as to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, it is difficult at times to say whether we are hearing the work or its reputation, our collective image of it.2

The canonization of Mozart’s other concertos is attributed primarily to the activity of two great pianists, Artur Schnabel and Edwin Fischer, in the 1930s and 1940s. Connoisseurs have been known to prefer the interpretations of Fischer, who specialized in Bach and Mozart—Schnabel favored Beethoven and Schubert—and who actually founded his own chamber orchestra to present the concertos in a “historical” fashion. But Schnabel was the more important international figure, and his recordings have never been allowed to remain out of circulation for very long. A new CD series, Mozart and Schnabel, transmits six of his concerto recordings, along with his famous performance of the Rondo in A minor, K. 511, and several sonatas.

A CD changer with repeat function makes it a simple matter to compare Schnabel and Bilson in, let us say, the opening piano solos in movements of the D minor Concerto. (This kind of comparison doesn’t speak to the nature or quality of their interpretations as a whole, of course, but at least it speaks with some specificity.) In the first movement, the piano enters some time after the orchestra, as always happens in classical concertos; here—and this happens rather rarely—the piano enters with a completely new, notably expressive theme. Schnabel does a number of little things with tempo and dynamics in order to make this entry theme into something assertive and particularly characteristic.

There are six tiny phrases—two plus two plus two—in the entry theme (see score on facing page). Schnabel is renowned for his impeccable molding of melodic lines; by speeding up the tempo a little at the start, he tints the line with urgency and disquiet. Playing phrases 1–3 more and more intensely and freely, with increasing volume and rubato, results in a precipitous emotional climax at the end of phrase 3. But then Schnabel is more or less forced to play phrase 4—the highest so far—more quietly, and it trails away.

The solo persona projected by Bilson seems to be thinking less about the presence it is going to establish than about the theme it has just heard in the orchestra (as well it might: it is an astonishingly tormented theme). Slowing the tempo slightly, Bilson plays phrases 1–2 and 3–4 in a straightforward soft/loud (piano/mezzo forte) pattern. Besides reflecting the inherent paired structure of the phrases, and their register, which is low/high in each case, this brings the music out at a mezzo forte so that phrases 5–6, which are the highest of all, can soar beautifully. Notice how Bilson glides through the grace note in the last measure. Certainly he underplays phrase 3—and gains a quiet pinch of pathos without having to work for it. Distinguish this from Schnabel’s underplaying of phrase 4, which has to be called sentimental.

All the phrases are linked by repetitions of a single four-note figure in the left hand. Bilson (like most other pianists) plays these calmly and consistently—a reasonable reading, since the very neutrality of the figure serves to anchor the wide-ranging, emotional span of the right-hand melody. By accenting the figure in various different ways, Schnabel destroys this anchor; his concept of this entire entry passage as basically disruptive is easier to accept than the arbitrary measures he takes to achieve the effect.

But if Schnabel is more idiosyncratic and Bilson more restrained in the first-movement theme, attitudes are reversed in the finale. Within the angry, impacted rondo theme a number of little fragments repeat themselves almost obsessively, and Schnabel makes no effort to distinguish these one from another. However stormy, his playing seems ultimately bland compared to Bilson’s, where the entire theme mounts in intensity, fragment by fragment, driving from a percussive trajectory at the beginning to a furious climax at the very end.

On paper, this may seem like a very “unclassical” strategy for a Mozart theme. But it sounds thrilling, and it suits both the aberrant theme itself and also the deeply unclassical movement which that theme launches. Usually, once a rondo theme has been played by the soloist, the orchestra repeats it and so appropriates it; not so in the D minor Concerto. After the first offer of the piano theme, the orchestra can’t get even the music right for more than three measures, and when it attempts to develop the theme rather than repeat it, the orchestra simply gets lost. The second offer of the theme throws it into a virtual panic. After the last offer, which now begins to sound uncharacteristically like a challenge, the orchestra declines to deal with the initial theme at all—it literally changes the subject. Bilson’s explosive interpretation helps to rationalize the orchestra’s utter failure to cope, both technically and emotionally.

Exhausting analyses of this kind can be carried out with other discs slipped into the CD changer; and the comparison is not always so clearly to Bilson’s advantage. The pendant to the D minor Concerto, Concerto No. 21 in C, K. 467, is the vehicle for some of Schnabel’s finest playing. Bilson’s performance may be preferable as a whole—it is certainly less erratic—but he does not quite capture the verve with which Schnabel projects the opening piano entry in the first movement, or the piano entry after the main theme in the finale, or many of the bravura passages. Also in the finale Schnabel finds a perfect combination of wariness and charm for the delightful passage of mock uncertainty that starts the development section. Phrases in the celebrated slow movement are molded with a pensive grace that is almost unbelievable, especially in view of the slow tempo (more than half again as slow as Bilson).

Bilson does, however, have an in-built advantage in playing Mozart concertos on an eighteenth-century instrument—the so-called “Mozart piano,” or fortepiano—together with an orchestra of period or period-style instruments. The fortepiano he uses is a beautiful reproduction by the American maker Philip Belt, and the orchestra is conducted, very well indeed, by John Eliot Gardiner.

The Bilson-Gardiner enterprise represents, in fact, another major foray by the early-music movement into the later reaches of the canonic concert repertory: first Bach and Handel, now Mozart and Beethoven. Moreover, Roger Norrington has already conducted period-instrument concerts monstres of music by Berlioz, and Bilson will soon record the Schumann Piano Concerto on a piano of 1838. Small wonder that the old dispute among musicians about so-called “historically authentic” performance has flared up once again.

The action may be viewed at a safe distance in an anthology called Authenticity in Early Music, edited by Nicholas Kenyon.3 Not much of intellectual substance remains to the idea of “authentic” performance after Richard Taruskin, in an explosive essay, has challenged its historical plausibility, denied its desirability, and mocked the pretensions implicit in the loaded term itself. His own term, “authentistic,” is handily backloaded, “authentistic being to authentic as Hellenistic was to Hellenic.” At times Taruskin writes as though the whole early-music movement were a scam in aid of the recording companies, similar to the hoax that Joseph Horowitz claimed the mass-culture industry perpetrated around “authentic” versions of symphonic classics by Toscanini.4 This is a lot less convincing than Taruskin’s argument that the true ideological basis of “authentistic” performance is not really historical reconstruction at all.

Is not—or was not. For some time after World War I, it is certainly true that both historical performance and “traditional” performance tended toward the impersonal, the objective, and what T.E. Hulme called the “geometrical,” as opposed to the “vitalistic” in nineteenth-century art. Indeed, the original impetus behind the early-music movement was the revulsion against romantic emotionality endemic to early-twentieth-century modernism, the modernism of Pound, Eliot, Hulme (who admired “the dry hardness which you get in the classics”), Ortega, and Stravinsky. Historicism became important only later. Stravinsky is a key figure, with his astringent music of the neoclassical period, his influential polemics against musical expression in the Harvard lectures The Poetics of Music, and his likewise influential piano performances (as in an almost unbelievably mechanical Mozart recording of 1938).

  1. 1

    Brendel and Perahia have recorded all twenty-seven concertos for one or more pianos and orchestra, Perahia adding Mozart’s early concertos arranged from works of other composers. Ashkenazy has recorded sixteen, and Bilson will have reached twenty when his final disc containing the Concertos in C minor, K. 491, and B flat, K. 495, is issued later this year.

  2. 2

    Charles Rosen, The Classical Style (Norton, 1972), p. 228.

  3. 3

    Oxford University Press, 1988. Taruskin’s essay, “The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past,” appears on pp. 137–210.

  4. 4

    Joseph Horowitz, Understanding Toscanini (Knopf, 1987).

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