Two Ways to Mozart
As we did with Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring on its centennial day last month, we'll play the same piece twice on Wednesday's WFCR classical music. Well...not exactly the same piece. Actually, it's quite amazing how different the music can be, when the notes are mostly the same. A bit of background:
The piano concerto was Mozart's main vehicle for displaying his talents as both composer and performer after arriving in Vienna for good in late 1781. No fewer than 15 masterworks in the concerto form emerged between then and 1786, including an astonishing half-dozen (known to us as Nos. 14-19) in 1784 alone. Witty, operatic (sometimes tragic, more often comic) and endlessly inventive, Mozart's greatest piano concertos, more than any other works, elevated the genre to the exalted status it holds to this day, and bequeathed composers from Beethoven on with models for their own explorations. These works alone absolutely destroy the insulting canard, uttered by Pierre Boulez and others, that Mozart contributed no innovations to the history of music (my earlier refutation here). After 1786, however, tastes changed, Mozart was no longer a novelty — we know the sad story of Mozart's final years. Only two more concertos emerged between 1787 and Mozart's death in 1791.
After years in which classical composers and performers typically fancied themselves above the commercial fray, entrepreneurship has by necessity recently come back into the classical lexicon. Check out Greg Sandow's blog for many inventive examples. Well, for Mozart and his contemporaries, there was nothing at all dirty about making a buck, or whatever they called money back them. So, despite the fact that posterity would regard them as inviolable masterworks, if Mozart could monetize his concertos by arranging them for easier and more frequent performance, he wouldn't hesitate to do so. In fact, he did so, with arrangements for piano and string quintet of his first three Vienna concertos, No. 11-13. Here's an excellent recording, though I will admit to finding these versions a bit dull compared with the grander originals, missing in particular Mozart's piquant scoring for winds.
Far more interesting is the arrangement of Mozart's Concerto No. 26, "Coronation," that comes up in the noon hour on Wednesday. It's not by Mozart, but it's the next best thing: one of seven Mozart concertos arranged by the pianist and composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel (above right), who practically became a member of the family when he studied and boarded with Mozart from 1785-87. While Hummel's original works, fine as they are, fail to uphold the high reputation accorded them at the time, these arrangements are beautiful works of art. Backed by just flute, violin and cello, the piano parts in these chamber versions are tastefully fleshed out with Hummel's own ornamentation and enrichment of the texture. A moustache on the Mona Lisa? Not hardly; on the contrary, they probably give us a taste of how Mozart himself went beyond the written notes (which after all, he had written) in his own performances. Think of that the next time a performer gasses on about reverential faithfulness to the original text of Mozart's concertos. And tune in during the noon hour Wednesday for a performance by pianist Fumiko Shiraga (below left) and friends that turns the lofty "Coronation" into an exquisite, intimate musical dialogue — real chamber music, rather than the mini-concertos of Mozart's own arrangements.
But don't go away after that. Because in the 3:00 hour, we'll hear Mozart's original, lovingly rendered by pianist/conductor Rudolf Buchbinder and the Vienna Symphony, from their excellent series of Mozart's complete Piano Concertos. With full scoring, including trumpets and timpani, the work takes on the festive air appropriate to its association, real or not, with Leopold II's coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in 1790. Still, there's intimacy and tenderness a-plenty in Buchbinder's treatment of this underrated work. So which of the two versions do I prefer? The one I'm listening to at the time, of course!