Sunday, March 16, 2008

Mozart Musings

In my search for new and interesting composers, I may sometimes sound as if I didn't appreciate the "masters" enough. Nothing could be farther from the truth! I'm long overdue to profess my love for Mozart. Is such a profession even necessary? Perhaps; Glenn Gould ranted against Mozart's piano music, yet went ahead and recorded it (to me, Gould's performance manages to trivialize most of Mozart, as if to advertise his contempt.)

My periodic revival of interest in Mozart almost always begins when I listen to a recording of Die Zauberflöte. I don't love opera nearly as much as the genre deserves (a separate discussion), but the Magic Flute never fails to draw me in.

Mozart's piano works are deceptively simple. I think most of us know that playing the notes of the "easy" Sonata, KV 545, is one thing. Playing them well is another issue. When I turned 40, I took up the study of piano seriously for a couple of years. I had acquired minimal skills and maximum bad habits through a year of introductory piano study at the San Francisco Conservatory when I was not even 20. Listening to too much Glenn Gould convinced me to make another attempt at the piano as the first pangs of middle age were setting in. Fortunately, I found an excellent teacher, a student of a student of Schnabel, who did everything she could to get me back on the right track. Her love of Mozart was deep and unconditional. Except that she kept referring to the recordings of Mitsuko Uchida, whose recordings of Mozart were still relatively new at the time.

"Just how bad could she be?" I asked myself. I did the only reasonable thing I could: I bought a CD and was immediately captivated. To this day, Uchida's Mozart remains a special pleasure: it is almost as close to "perfect" as I could ask for, with the possible exception that she plays the score as-is, without any embellishments. I understand: to do so as a modern pianist is just asking for trouble from the "purists." The "purists" are wrong; in spite of every argument they may make and evidence they may produce to suggest that Mozart didn't want others messing up his masterpieces, a little light variation or embellishment on the repeats is not only "musical," but an expected practice of the day. Still, I love Uchida's wonderful sound, her perfect command of nuance, and her mastery of Mozart's wonderful melodic lines.

Ultimately, I appreciate the modern piano for its perfection of sound and action, but I also appreciate the variety of sound and texture that the fortepiano can give. Whereas any modern piano pretty much sounds like a "modern piano," there are many different fortepianos, each with its own sound and personality. The fortepiano was rapidly evolving in Mozart's day (he, of course, was equally acquainted with the harpsichord and clavichord, but that is a separate topic.) I have collected several recordings of Mozart performed on fortepianos, each with charming sound, none of with the inspired insight of Uchida. I had nearly given up hoping for an excellent fortepiano recording until I saw a review of a new recording by Marcia Hadjimarkos.

The two names most associated with the fortepiano and Mozart are Stein and Walter. The Stein fortepianos are delicate instruments, actually softer in sound than the large harpsichords of the day, that are (in my mind) the next step past the instruments of Christofori. Walter built what is often considered the "next generation" instrument: more robust, with a richer sound. Walter fortepianos seem to be especially favored because they are still distinctly a "fortepiano" in sound, but capable of doing early Beethoven justice.

Getting back to Hadjimarkos' new recording: this very talented performer's recording oeuvre is far too small; I believe I own everything: her Haydn on clavichord, Emanuel Bach on clavichord and fortepiano, and now her Mozart on fortepiano. All are treasures. Her performances are full of life and creativity, with her own distinctive personality stamped on them. For her Mozart recording, she uses a fortepiano built by Christopher Clarke after Sebastian Lengerer (1793), who was a student of Stein. The sound of this instrument is glorious: this is the fortepiano I would want, if I could afford one of Clarke's instruments. The sound quality of the recording overall is excellent, with just the right amount of room ambiance. The program is conservative and designed to please, including the Sonatas in C minor, KV 457, C major, KV 545, and B flat major, KV 333, along with three rondos. I think programming the Sonata in C major, "sonata facile," is actually quite bold: such a well-known piece leaves the performer very exposed. She gives the repeats in opening Allegro just the right amount of embellishment. In fact, her execution of ornaments reflects limits of the fortepiano action: simplified to the point where one trill that is usually flubbed by us amateurs is appropriately made into an appoggiatura. She takes the Andante rather briskly, with the advantage that it carries the melodic line very nicely and the movement doesn't drag. I can't say enough good things about this recording: it is at least as good, if not better, than Uchida's recordings.

When searching for Hadjimarkos' new recording, I bumped into a slightly older (2005) recording that I had missed by Tom Beghin. Beghin is a real "thinking man's performer" who is always looking for some "angle" or special insight; he deserves to be much better known than he is. (A Belgian by nationality, he languished in the UCLA music department for several years before moving on to McGill University, in Montreal, where appreciation for "early music" is greater.)

The "angle" Beghin takes for his recording is centered around the Walter fortepiano Mozart owned when he died. This often copied instrument is now believed to have been "upgraded" with a newer action by Walter after Mozart's death, and so, doesn't represent the sound Mozart would have experienced. According to this theory, the original action was much more like the Stein instruments. Also, and this is quite significant, it is believed that the original instrument didn't have knee levers for the dampers, but rather hand stops; this obviously would have a significant influence on how the dampers would be used. Beghin's instrument was retrofitted with a second keyboard and damper hand stops, so that this particular instrument (build by Chris Maene) can be played both "before and after" for comparison of sound. This is intellectually very interesting, with two recordings of the Fantasia in D minor, KV 397. Beghin allows the characteristics of each "version" to dictate what he does with the music, and both interpretations are very nice. However, placing the same piece twice on a recording is musically bad programming (it is interesting that Hogwood did the same with the same piece on his recording, The Secret Mozart. I love that Fantasia and hate to see it overexposed like this.)

Like Hadjimarkos, Beghin's performance is full of energy and passion. I find Beghin a little more prone to interpretive melodrama, taking more rhythmic license. I'm afraid that his instrument isn't as nice sounding as Hadjimarkos', either "before" or "after", although I prefer the "after"; nor is the recorded sound as nice: it seems a little too dry. In addition to the dual performance of the Fantasia, he places a sheet of paper on the strings in the Alla Turca to get a "drumming" effect popular with later instruments; this is mildly interesting at first, then grows wearisome. I find his use of the different pedaling resources to be very compelling, and overall his demonstration of the resources of both versions of the fortepiano illuminating. This is a recording that one listens to more because it is "interesting", than because of the program and performance itself. This is not to say that it isn't a very good recording that I will listen to often—probably minus the Alla Turca track.

Returning to Mitsuko Uchida: I'm sure I was an interesting—if trying—student on a number of accounts. After hearing how horrible Uchida's Mozart was too many times, I replied that I had purchased all of her recordings and found them to embody everything my teacher was trying to teach me. She was a little taken aback, then admitted that she had heard perhaps only one movement on the radio under less than ideal circumstances, and that perhaps she should listen a little more closely.