August 27, 2004

Mother of God, It's Mozart Blogging

I suppose the post below about the Yalie who is predicting the Armageddon of classical music spurned me on to this, but I spent this evening wallowing in some serious Mozart.

First, it was the "Prague" Symphony, No. 38 (K. 504). As far as I am concerned, the first movement of this symphony is the absolute apex of the classical symphonic statement. (I'm willing to concede that the second and third movements don't match the first in terms of brilliance, thereby weakening the argument that this is the greatest classical symphony ever written. But it's still pretty damn close.)

I have two recordings of this piece. The first, which I listen to regularly, is by Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert. It is pretty good, but there is a certain - how shall I say it? - mushiness that keeps this performance from being as good as it could be. My other recording is by Sir Charles Mackeras and the Prague Chamber Orchestra. The tempi are waaaaay too fast, making the whole thing sound frantic.

The performance of Mozart presents problems which, as far as I am aware, are unique to his music. On the one hand, notation must be respected precisely and tempi must be fast and crisp. On the other hand, the performance must appear effortless. Any deviation from the path between the Scylla of sloppiness and the Charybdis of Trying Too Hard is fatal to the performance. Buh-lieve me, I know what I'm talking about. I studied and performed the C-minor piano sonata, K. 457, in my day. Time after time, I would focus on technical perfection only to discover that I had blown the sense of the piece. When I tried to catch my breath and concentrate on the substance, I would frequently find myself forgetting to pay attention to the technical minutiae. Very frustration-making. Any time you see a pianist with bruises on his forehead, you will know you've seen someone practicing Mozart.

On the other hand, when done right, Mozart's music carries a sublime aura unknowable in any other composer's work. In this respect, may I strongly recommend Malcom Bilson, fortepianist? The other piece I listened to this evening was the piano concerto No. 18 in B-Flat, K. 456, performed by Mr. Bilson and the English Baroque Soloists under John Eliot Gardiner. This piece has always been a favorite of mine. Allow me to quote to you what Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang's father, had to say about Mozart's performance of this piece at a Lenten concert on February 13, 1785:

...a masterful concerto that he wrote for [the blind virtuosa Maria Theresia} Paradis...I... had the great pleasure of hearing all the interplay of the instruments so clearly that for sheer delight tears came to my eyes. When your brother left the stage, the Emperor tipped his hat and called out, "Bravo, Mozart!" and when he came on to play, there was a great deal of clapping.

I particularly enjoy the first movement of the piece. However, the rest is good as well. I swear that there is a thematic connection between the pathetic, almost tragic second movement and one of Susanna's moonlit arias from the fourth act of Le Nozzi di Figaro although I am too tired tonight to track it down. At any rate, Bilson is keenly aware of the pitfalls of Mozartian performance and avoids them all. His playing is crisp, clean and seemingly effortless. So you can lose yourself in the sublimity of the music without having to fret about the imperfections of Man dragging you back down to Earth. That's the way Mozart ought always to be performed.

Posted by Robert at August 27, 2004 11:34 PM | TrackBack

How about sending us your "new" email address ASAP? As of now, we can't send to you.

Posted by: Galbreath at August 28, 2004 10:40 AM

Try Bruno Walter's Mozart symphonies.

Posted by: Don Cox at August 28, 2004 12:00 PM

Way to work the Scylla/Charybdis reference. Nice!

Posted by: LF at August 28, 2004 01:38 PM

As far as "Prague" is concerned...

There is(was) a recording of this symphony with Bruno Walter and - IIRC - LA Symphony. The interesting thing was that the B side featured cuts from the rehearsal of Movement #1. The record came boxed along with a score.

The whole thing appeared in the late fifties and would be considered rare now. I do remember one thing: Walter made the first string section play the first few bars with up-bowing which did sound different! And one unfortunate oboeist was gently chastized for blowing clinkers during a take.

Nice to find a fellow Mozartian alive and well...


Posted by: Good Ole Charlie at August 28, 2004 10:38 PM

Blowing clinkers?

One of the great experiences of my life was watching a performance of Mozart string quartets performed in Vienna (where you can't go ten feet without seeing an advert for some Mozart performance or other) in a tiny chappel where the maestro himself had once given personal performances to small audiences.

The fact that at one point the cellist accidentally stabbed the viola with his bow only served to enhance the overall effect.

Posted by: Beck at August 29, 2004 02:32 AM

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