Maestro...it's just music!
Last week on the New England Public Radio classical blog, it was high praise for the great Italian conductor Claudio Abbado. Today, not so much. At least if one accepts Daniel J. Wakin's reporting in today's New York Times. And Wakin's one of the best classical journalists around.
To summarize: Abbado and pianist Hélène Grimaud recorded a pair of Mozart piano concertos for the Deutsche Grammophon label. On one of them, despite Abbado's misgivings, Grimaud played a cadenza by Ferruccio Busoni, rather than Mozart's own cadenza. After the recording was finished and ready to go, Abbado put his foot down, insisting that Mozart's cadenza be used instead. Grimaud, refusing to budge, got the label to block the recording's release, and went on to redo them with the Bavarian Radio Chamber Orchestra. Perhaps you heard them last week on WFCR.
To understand the stakes here, it helps to be reminded what a cadenza is. It's the showy solo passage (the orchestra lays out) that comes almost invariably near the end of a concerto's first movement, and sometimes elsewhere as well. In Mozart's time, the cadenza was actually improvised. Yes, Mozart wrote down cadenzas for the published versions of some of his concertos, but it's doubtful that he ever performed the written versions himself. That's what makes this dust-up, especially Abbado's part in it, seem a little silly. Granted, Abbado's not talking. And it's possible that there's something more than a little ol' cadenza behind his artistic divorce from Grimaud.
Let's take this a little further. Like many other performers, Abbado here regards Mozart's notes as holy writ, and performing them as an act of humility and reverence. There's nothing wrong with that, if the results are splendid. But were they regarded thusly in Mozart's time? Of course not. For Mozart and his audience, these were living works by a living composer, intended not for communing with the immortals, but for entertainment. Yes, entertainment of the highest quality. But not as ossified relics before which we must bow down. Now, to perform them with the utmost musicianship is one thing. But to regard them as absolutely inviolable is to take some of the fun out of performing and listening to Mozart's works. And if it's not fun, why do it? So, my advice to all participants would be to ask the age-old musical question: What would Mozart do?
Ironically, it was the freshness and vibrancy of Abbado's performances of Mozart that led to last week's praise. Today, I must chide the great conductor for his high-handed, if high-minded, attitude. Maybe by presuming to do so, I'm taking myself a little too seriously. But hey, it's just a blog. And that's what blogging's all about, isn't it?