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On Mozart: An Interview with Alfred Brendel

Martin Meyer, translated from the German by Richard Stokes

The following is drawn from conversations between the pianist Alfred Brendel and the Swiss writer Martin Meyer, to be published in October.*

Martin Meyer : You see Mozart to a considerable extent as a composer of form. Could it not be that Mozart’s strict sense of form is obscured for the public at large by his wonderful melodies, his so-called “sweetness”?

Alfred Brendel: There is perfection of form, yes, but there is also the sensual beauty of the “cantabile” composer, the beauty above all of the Mozart sound. Mozart is one of the most sensuous composers ever. There is a sensuality too about his melodies. I’m reminded of a lovely sentence from Busoni, who said a few wonderful things in his aphorisms about Mozart. Bu-soni said there was no doubt that Mozart took singing as his starting point, and from this stems the uninterrupted melodiousness which shimmers through his compositions like the lovely forms of a woman through the folds of a flimsy dress. Isn’t that wonderful? And with Mozart, of course, you also have the quite amazing expressiveness which goes beyond what Busoni, who in this respect was more rooted in the nineteenth century, would concede: Mozart’s art of characterization from an early age was bound up with his observation of human beings. Mozart clearly observed people continually, and as a child took delight in improvising human emotions and reactions in the form of arias. His range is from the most comic and absurd to the demonic—which is where I disagree with Busoni, who does not recognize Mozart’s demonic side. Busoni was one of the greatest Mozart enthusiasts and a real authority—and yet it was he who said: “If Beethoven’s nature can be compared with the magnificence of a thunderstorm, then Mozart is an eternally sunny day.”

MM: Astonishing for such an intelligent composer.

AB: Certainly; yet one must bear in mind that Wagner too, who greatly admired some of Mozart’s works, saw in him “a genius of light and love,” while Schumann spoke of him as “floating Greek gracefulness.” They go well together. And this was still the case, yet even more so, in the Fifties, when Mozart was played, and listened to, in a most Apollonian manner. I can still remember the performances of Robert Casadesus, who “objectified” Mozart. Earlier conductors and pianists, such as Bruno Walter and Edwin Fischer and Furtwängler, had, it is true, emphasized the other side. There is also the famous Fritz Busch recording of Don Giovanni.

MM: When did you yourself discover the dark side of Mozart’s genius? Was it clear from the moment you began to devote yourself to Mozart?

AB: No, to begin with it was not clear. My approach to him in my first significant Mozart period in the Sixties was that of Apollonian poise. There are a few recordings from that time which still give me some pleasure. But that was later to change, probably something to do with my getting older. Mozart’s form—to talk of him as a composer of form—is certainly not strict. Style is not a corset. It rather resembles a wonderful made-to-measure suit. In his late style, which exists for me despite the objections of Wolfgang Hildesheimer in his Mozart, there is a tendency toward simplicity or simplification which may sometimes sound tired. The question then arises as to whether there are perhaps weaker works by Mozart, and whether one dares to talk about them. In this respect I am always very cautious, and proceed from the principle that if we have something to criticize in the work of a master, it is our fault rather than his. Nonetheless I’d like to say that some late Mozart, for example the Sarastro music in The Magic Flute, sounds rather anonymous. Mozart clearly did not feel at home in the world of institutionalized virtue.

MM: That probably has something to do with the intellectual theme.

AB: Yes, and when one sees how Sarastro treats Monostatos, or the opinion he has of women, one could easily become aggressive. There are quite a few things in Mozart’s late works that border on the bland—the second movement of the “Coronation” concerto oversteps the limit perhaps. There is a complete lack of emotional contrast, and yet this movement was extremely popular in the late nineteenth century. I once compared it with the pallid charm of certain Raphael Madonnas, and in doing so aroused the displeasure of my esteemed friend Ernst Gombrich.

MM: Can you think of any other works by Mozart that display weaknesses?

AB: Gently and with hesitation, I would perhaps mention the final movements of a number of piano concertos. Both K. 415 in C major with its wonderful slow movement and K. 456 with its two magnificent opening movements have rondos that are just a little disappointing—the reason why these pieces are not played more frequently.

MM: What could have persuaded Mozart to compose these rondos so casually?

AB: It is not always possible, you know, to be immediately aware of what one has done: even Mozart, with his unbelievable quality control, was not capable of this. And with Haydn, there was another reason. He was extremely busy at Esterháza and had to see to many things: performing new works that were not his own, training the orchestra and the singers, looking after the puppet theater, and learning to play the baryton, because this is what one of the princes required. With all that going on, and even without it, I do not think you can expect every work to be of the same standard—composing was like eating and breathing. Perhaps we should also talk about Mozart’s especially astonishing works.

MM: With great pleasure. You have described the “Jeunehomme” piano concerto, K. 271, as one of the wonders of the world, which showed Mozart in an entirely new light.

AB: Absolutely. If you listened to all of Mozart’s previous piano concertos without knowing who composed them you would hardly suspect that they were by him. But now something completely new appears, that is also an unbelievable leap in quality. The “Jeunehomme” piano concerto is Mozart’s first great masterpiece. He was twenty-one when he composed it, and he was not a teenage genius like Mendelssohn. Although he had already written many astonishing things which prepared the way for his later mastery, it is with the “Jeunehomme” concerto that this mastery begins—even if it is, as it were, premature, because Mozart had still to grow older before he could attain this level again. I even find that he did not surpass this piece in the later piano concertos. The truly gifted at times achieve things that appear too soon, as it were.

MM: And which then anticipate other comparably interesting and important compositions?

AB: Yes. The “Jeunehomme” concerto looks to the future, and yet it comes from a baroque tradition which the later concertos no longer continue. The slow movement is, so to speak, Gluck on a higher plane. It’s interesting, by the way, to look at the embellishments of the “Jeunehomme” concerto. Everything has been written out: the lead-ins, the cadenzas, which are among the greatest ever composed. The late works no longer need embellishments in this form. It is sometimes mistakenly said that when we look at the late piano concertos, which were often no longer completed for the engraver and in which certain things must be added, we ought to take such early works as an example. This way of thinking does not to my mind add up. Nor does the way in which Johann Nepomuk Hummel and Philipp Karl Hoffmann proceeded, two considerably younger contemporaries of Mozart, who so embellished Mozart’s music and overcrowded it with notes that one can no longer play an Andante as an Andante, but only as a Largo. That was not how Mozart ornamented his music. Enough of Mozart’s own elaborations exist for us to know what boundaries we should operate within.

MM: Nonetheless, the question still remains as to how one should meaningfully ornament a fair number of piano concertos, especially the slow movements.

AB: I would not, at any rate, go so far as some of today’s historically oriented performers. One must be cautious and not always surrender to the temptation to improvise. On the one hand, it is of course sometimes necessary to do something: when, for example, a simple theme occurs several times, without Mozart altering it, one may then alter it oneself. But if, on the other hand, one observes how discreetly sometimes Mozart has inserted the smallest and minutest of variations, there is much that can be learned. Just think of the C minor concerto: in the slow movement the theme is varied and illuminated in the most cautious of ways, and that is quite sufficient—a pianist who adds anything there is a villain.

MM: But at the same time one could not claim that Mozart’s piano concertos have a general tendency to become ever more rich and sumptuous. The B- flat major concerto, K. 595, is, as you have said so eloquently, a deceptively simple work.

AB: Yes. On the other hand, there are places in this concerto in which only the initial and final notes are notated, and a succession of pianists from the past, including Artur Schnabel and Clara Haskil, played only these outer notes—which to my mind is definitely too little. Edwin Fischer and Wanda Landowska were considerably more courageous. At any rate, the model remains Mozart himself with his own examples. By the way, when I speak of a piece like the “Jeunehomme” concerto, other works also occur to me which are both utterly fresh and completely successful: such as the sonata in A minor, K. 310, which transplants the great sublime style of opera seria onto the piano, above all in the middle movement.

MM: Where the limitations of the instrument have been well and truly exceeded.

AB: Of course. The sonata is a very clear example of my conviction that most piano works should not be interpreted merely in keyboard terms. The first movement is a symphonic piece—just observe the audience’s consternation if you play it as such. The second is a soprano aria with a dramatic middle section. I can even imagine the text. Think of the large-scale dynamics of the movement and the recurring six-four chords which stand there like pillars. We can see a proud woman standing there, saying: even if you tear me apart, I love you and shall remain true, and would rather die than deny you. This middle movement is then followed by the finale, a spooky piece for wind divertimento. It is precisely this that is very often to be found in Mozart’s sonatas: namely the sound of wind instruments, more often than that of strings….

MM: Let’s talk about a couple of Mozart clichés. Busoni has already been mentioned. Ernst Bloch, who wanted to derive the entire history of music of the eighteenth century from the French Revolution, called Mozart a composer of porcelain. These images and falsifications lasted well into the twentieth century—a little like what happened to Haydn.

AB: Relapses do still occur. All the same, the old instruments have brought about much that is good and have shown, for example, that the brass and the timpani could be much more aggressive than one had previously thought, and also that many old keyboard instruments can play with greater rasp. Now this can, if it is forced, sound exaggerated in the other direction, as can the very detailed articulation which may obscure the cantabile element. Basically, there should be a combination of both elements. In the first place, singing, but then as an important addition, speaking—whether one is talking about opera or not. For it is crucial in instrumental works as well.

MM: If Haydn is instrumental, then Mozart is predominantly vocal, and metaphorically so?

AB: The singing individual—yes, or the character standing on stage: that can always be felt.

MM: I was nonetheless somewhat astonished by your comment that Mozart never upset the categories, offended against the emotive areas of beauty. Are there not pieces by Mozart that enter precisely those regions that bring us close to ugliness, torment, and dissonance?

AB: Maybe when I made that remarkI was sticking too close to Busoni, who once said something rather similar. But what do you find ugly in Mozart?

MM: Perhaps I mean ugly in inverted commas, because could it not be that this ugliness surfaces when there is an intensification of the expressive means, as for example in the first movement of the C minor sonata or the development in the opening movement of the D minor concerto?

AB: There are definitely roughnesses that should not be smoothed over. We only need to look at how Bruno Walter approached Don Giovanni with greater harshness than was traditional, and how other conductors then followed, and still follow, his example. Nonetheless, when you listen to Furtwängler’s live performance from Salzburg, it still sounds quite magnificent—and it is this principle of sublime and not false pathos that predominates and is maintained. Furtwängler is quite unbelievable in the way he links the numbers and their sections into one symphonic breath. He really does lead you from one part to the other, even in the overture, with a naturalness that one otherwise never hears. Today one would end many phrases diminuendo, whereas Furtwängler rather uses the ends of phrases as a springboard to the next phrase.

MM: Could we mention Mozart’s nervousness that you have already analyzed? The way his music moves on, the way one bar moves into the next?

AB: Yes, that is of course Mozart’s tendency toward a procedural manner, a tendency that can be demonstrated easily enough. Another exceptional work that broke new ground is Die Entführung, the first great German opera, in which there is a freshness and utter mastery that remain astonishing. Then, of course, there’s the miraculous sound of the quintets—which was previously unheard of, even in Boccherini. And finally the concert arias, for example the wonderful “Ch’io mi scordi di te?” for soprano, piano, and orchestra.

One characteristic of Mozart’s music is the contrast between the public and the private. If, for example, you think of certain tuttis in the piano concertos, particularly the one in C major, K. 503, there are few private utterances, because for long stretches this is, as it were, an official, festive, and public work.

MM: Rather like the C major concerto, K. 467?

AB: Only slightly. K. 467 has, in spite of its Allegro maestoso, much more wit and grace, quite apart from the rapturous lyrical nocturne of the middle movement. Further contrasts in Mozart include: the fateful and the personal; the galant and graceful, and the sublime; the comic and the serious; the ironic and the unequivocal—Così fan tutte in particular springs to mind. Where does one begin and the other end? An eternal question….

MM: In this context there is a speculative question that preoccupies me. In the case of Beethoven, one can almost imagine the composer, psychologically, in the throes of the creative process. One also thinks of Beethoven when one plays certain particular pieces by him. But with Mozart it is quite different. Isn’t it as if there’s a wall of impenetrability between his works and his personality?

AB: That is a very interesting question. I am basically of the opinion that you should not draw conclusions about the composer from his work, or vice versa. In exceptional cases this can be done with advantage, but only exceptionally. I would personally prefer it if all artists had remained as anonymous in their everyday life as Shakespeare. The less one knows about them the better. And particularly with composers. When Beethoven is portrayed as the all-embracing lover of humanity, I have to point out that the final movement of the Ninth Symphony or the prisoners’ chorus and the final act of Fidelio are not the only things he composed. It’s true, Mozart’s Magic Flute and Bach’s Passions also have a message, if one wishes to speak of messages. But with regard to Beethoven: his expressiveness ranges from the all-embracing to the private, from the numinous to the comic, from wit to “eternal truth.” Yet the Diabelli Variations are as devoid of pathos as any work that has ever been written. With the best will in the world, you can read no message there, unless it be Kleist’s statement: “When perception has passed through infinity, gracefulness reappears.” Of course, if you cultivate the old-fashioned view of a heroic Beethoven, you will easily misinterpret the piece.

—Translated from the German by Richard Stokes

  1. *

    Excerpted from Me of All People: Alfred Brendel in Conversation with Martin Meyer. Translation copyright © 2002 by Richard Stokes. To be published by Cornell University Press in the US and, in the UK, under the title The Veil of Order, by Faber and Faber.

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