Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Mozart Mystery

Preparing for performances of Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 12 in A major K. 414.
July 11, 2008 in Shippensburg, PA. with the Chamber Orchestra of the Summer Music Festival and David Amado conducting.
July 14, 2008 in Seattle, WA. at the Seattle chamber music festival.

In the past several weeks I have been thinking whether to write about my experience of playing Beethoven's "Waldstein" sonata for the first time, or maybe about the new discoveries I had when playing the Schumann piano concerto with three different orchestras last month. But as it turns out, something else, entirely different came up which I wanted to share. It is somewhat a mystery - a Mozart mystery.

I am in the midst of preparations for concerts of what is for me a new piano concerto - Mozart's concerto no. 12 in A, K. 414. Playing Mozart in the course of the season is, in my opinion, one of the most important things a musician can do in order to continuously develop, learn and raise his level of awareness to subtleties of rhythm, shades of sound as well as agogic, stresses and nuances of a phrase. Afterwards comes... exhaustion!

As I am learning the second movement of this delightful concerto I reach the point where the piano first departs from what was already introduced before by the orchestra. We are in the land of divinity, and this point of departure takes us a step even higher: Suddenly, without prior warning or any preparation the piano soars into a new melody - one with such heavenly beauty... it makes me stop. Not that it is "too much", it is just so overwhelming, I want to know where it came from.

This magical moment, just as it unnoticeably appeared, it disappeared without ever returning. But Why?! Won't there be a recap of the material, as is the case with music written in the classical era? If it is so beautiful, this magical moment, why not bring it again? Alas, why wasn't it announced before, or wasn't I told so I could properly prepare?

I look back at other Mozart concerti which I played over the years - No. 11 in F (K. 413), No. 13 in C (K. 415), No. 20 in D minor (K. 466), no. 23 also in A (K. 488), and no. 24 in C minor (K. 491) among others. Do these concerti all have a special moment such as the one I have just experienced? The answer is a resounding "yes!" - All of them have that moment which shows up unannounced, lingers for just a little, then goes away and shall not return.

Can we find similarities between these special secrets - "yes" and "no". "No" because there is really no pattern for their appearance- they could come during the course of the 1st, 2nd or 3rd movements. They can occur basically anytime! Or can they? Are they a result of pure spontaneity by a genius, or are they pre-planned? Does their function change depending on the place which they appear? Do they influence the structure, the unfolding of the movement?

One immediatey notices when these moments unveil themselves, but it is for different reasons that their beauty becomes so apparent: It can be a lonely melodic line singing high above in utmost simplicity in between outer sections of chordal writing full of dense texture as is the case in the present concerto K. 414. Or it can be the sudden launching into high passionate Sturm und Drung section at the end of a courtly dance movement - a Menuet, as is the case in the final movement of K. 413.

When I look for similarities between these cherishable moments, several realizations come to mind: their strength is a function of their brevity. Their sudden appearance and the fact that they will not come back is a virtue. They illuminate what we have just heard and what is yet to come.

Another thought has to do with the sensuous beauty and deep feeling from which these moments spring - maybe this is a glimpse into the composer's innermost, his inner-life, far from concealing the inward glow of passion!

These special places are always in complete contrast to what has happened before, yet their appearance sounds so inevitable. It is quite fascinating the different ways in which Mozart creates these very personal moments. In K. 414 it is a new melody of entirely new character on top of the simplest accompaniment - repeated chords; in K. 413 it is a "circle of fifths", which in the context of what has happened before, is quite shocking and at the same time so soothing...; In K. 491 when the tragedy, which was set forth at the opening slowly transforms through glimpses of hope when the second subject is introduced by the piano, a sudden, totally unexpected return of the opening theme (now re-orchestrated with solo Flute over piano accompanying) erases all traces of a positive outlook.

In K. 488 during the course of the exuberant Finale an "uninvited" guest arrives - Antonio the drunk gardener - in the form of a new theme in a new key. It converses with the orchestra, flirts with it, shouts at it... and goes away - a pure miracle! Why the gardener? Why here? It is not a "necessary" part of the "form". But maybe Mozart is not writing "forms", he is writing stories, and as the story unfolds, so does the twists and turns of his music.

My good friend Jonathan Biss wrote in his blog about the "sense of the mercurial in Mozart - the sensation that the character of a phrase is being determined as it is played as a reaction to the provocation that was the previous phrase - is of utmost importance. And that cannot be faked - you can only give the impression of being in the moment by actually being in the moment."

I think this all adds up to our efforts to understand this "mystery." We will never be able to solve it, but maybe, just maybe we will be able to get closer to it, feel it, and possibly even touch it momentarily.

Mozart wrote in a letter to his father in 1782 about the concerti K. 413, 414 and 415: "...There are passages here and there from which the connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why..."

I think this applies to these miraculous moments. And so next time when you listen to a Mozart concerto, look for these special places where a shiver runs through the body, a smile lights up the face, and you could hear Mozart laughing high above. You have just witnessed yet another layer of this composer's intimate personality. He whispered a secret in your ear!

Alon Goldstein


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