“Unmistakably, Mozart takes singing as his starting point, and from this issues the uninterrupted melodiousness which shimmers through his compositions like the lovely forms of a woman through the folds of a thin dress” (Busoni).
Let this be the first warning to the Mozart performer: piano playing, be it ever so faultless, must not be considered sufficient. Mozart’s piano works should be for the player a receptacle full of latent musical possibilities which often go far beyond the purely pianistic. It is not the limitations of Mozart’s pianoforte (which I refuse to accept) that point the way, but rather Mozart’s dynamism, colorfulness, and expressiveness in operatic singing, in the orchestra, in ensembles of all kinds. For example, the first movement of Mozart’s Sonata in A minor K. 310 is to me a piece for symphony orchestra; the second movement resembles a vocal scene with a dramatic middle section, and the finale could be transcribed into a wind divertimento with no trouble at all.
In Mozart’s piano concertos, the sound of the piano is set off more sharply against that of the orchestra. Here the human voice and the orchestral solo instrument will be the main setters of standards for the pianist. From the Mozart singer he will learn not only to sing but also to “speak” clearly and with meaning, to characterize, to act and react; from the string player to think in terms of up-bow and down-bow; and from the flautist or oboist to shape fast passages in a variety of articulations, instead of delivering them up to an automatic nonlegato or, worse yet, to an undeviating legato such as the old complete edition prescribed time and again without a shred of authenticity.
A singing line and sensuous beauty,as important as they may be in Mozart, are not, however, the sole sources of bliss. To tie Mozart to a few traits is to diminish him. That great composers have manifold things to say and can use contradictions to their advantage should be evident in performances of his music. There has been entirely too great a readiness to reduce Mozart to Schumann’s “floating Greek gracefulness” or Wagner’s “genius of light and love.” Finding a balance between freshness and urbanity (“He did not remain simple and did not grow over-refined,” said Busoni), force and transparency, unaffectedness and irony, aloofness and intimacy, between freedom and set patterns, passion and grace, abandonment and style—among the labors of the Mozart player, this is only rewarded by a stroke of good luck.
What is it that marks Mozart’s music? An attempt to draw a dividing line between Haydn and Mozart could perhaps help to answer the question. Mozart sometimes comes astonishingly close to Haydn, and Haydn to Mozart, and they shared their musical accomplishments in brotherly fashion; but they were fundamentally different in nature. I see in Haydn and Mozart the antithesis between instrumental and vocal, motif and melody, C.P.E. and J.C. Bach, adagio and andante, caesuras (amusing and startling) and connections (seamless), daring…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.
Copyright © 1985 Alfred Brendel