Friday, January 04, 2008
Playing Mozart, Watching Mozart
One of the reasons why this blog has fallen into a state of neglect is that I spend a lot of time practicing the piano. Toss in the various other time vacuums on the adult side of the family life equation, and well, blogging doesn't seem to fill a void because there's no void to be filled.
Moreover, my professional life is occupied with writing, and I've discovered that writing as a hack is not conducive to producing the (can I say it?) nicer, perhaps more elegant stuff I'd like to present here.
Nevertheless, I will continue to press on, and we shall see what comes of it.
I am playing Mozart again. I do not know why, but I have avoided playing his music on the piano ever since we bought it last January. Preferring to spend my time on Bach and Beethoven instead of tackling Mozart, I believe part of it was a genuine lack of interest on my part.
Nevertheless, about two months ago, I found myself taking out my volume of his sonatas and playing them, starting with K. 309. As I played it, I began to wonder why on earth it was I had stopped playing Mozart.
I have spent months playing Bach and Beethoven and I fear that most of that playing has been lifeless and uninspired. Then I sit down and play some Mozart, and suddenly the piano feels alive, or at least there's a pulse, and I finally feel capable of stirring this dry percussion into the joint pursuit of making music. With Mozart.
Mozart. The composer everyone warns you about, that playing his music is the hardest thing in the universe to do. Who hasn't been told in a piano lesson, or in a masterclass, that despite the sheer beauty a serviceable musician can produce when they're playing Mozart, that nevertheless, despite all evidence to the contrary, Mozart is really the hardest composer to play well?
Do I have any solid evidence for this bit of conjecture? No, but if there are any classical musicians who happen to read this blog, please support me here in my contention that saying Mozart is the most difficult music to play in the entire canon is the Pez of classical music's conventional wisdom, at hand to be dispensed by a journalist looking for a newspaper quote, or perhaps to a student learning to play K. 545 and who complains that it is too easy.
Please. Let's turn this view on its head, and argue that part of the reason Mozart is so hard to play is that his music is not intended for professionals, but for amateurs, but that professionals need some reason to justify their playing it.
I would never go so far as say that the brilliant techniques of many very fine pianists are, perhaps, wasted on Mozart, but that they want to play him too, and that the effortlessness of playing Mozart musically and beautifully presents certain philosophical problems to the professional musician.
The thing I find startling about Mozart is just how easy it is to make him sound good. Mozart does all the work for you.
But, instead of arguing, let's use the power of the Internet to demonstrate this. First, here's Vladimir Horowitz playing the last movement of Mozart's K.330:
Beautiful, isn't it? Well, how about Lang Lang? It's a tad slower, but he was just playing with a whole orchestra, so you can't really blame him for making his encore just a tad more subdued!
So then, what about this young lady - the 3rd movement starts at 3:40. Is she playing like Horowitz or Lang? No, but isn't the joy still there, the line? Do we not see the forest for the trills here?
Or how about this? The pickup on the camera is a bit weak, but should we be knocking on his door and confiscating his Peters Edition of the sonatas?
Mozart's music presents technical difficulties, and no one would argue that, but I'm not sure if there is any composer who rewards you with so much even if you can only put in a little. Mozart's music is some of the most charitable music in the world. So why does this myth of Mozart's secret difficulty persist?
Perhaps it has to do with the emergence of the musician as artist as opposed to journeyman. Out of this transformation emerged the deification of the composer, of which Mozart was perhaps the first, and the fetishizing of the score as sacred text.
[An aside - does anyone remember Gunther Schuller's The Complete Conductor? No other work better captures this sacred tone than his fundamentalist tome. I leave it to the reader to decide whether or not that's a church of which they are a member, except to say that Schuller's book is the only music book I have ever returned to a bookstore. I would also suggest a tonic of Richard Taruskin after attempting to read it.]
As Liszt et al composed music that only a few could play, and the concurrent emergence of piano playing as a profession, keeping Mozart well within the bounds of the professional, as an essential part of a professional pianists repertoire, given his status in the growing pantheon of greats, makes a certain part of sense.
The problem is that in order to divorce his piano sonatas and variations from their initial context as teaching pieces and for private performance, and raise them, as it were, to something worth a professional's performance time would have to find ways to talk about them that justify this.
Now I know that this sounds like some kind of mass conspiracy, but I do not mean it this way. Rather, finding new ways to talk about Mozart's piano music and its "special" difficulties for the performer, even though they are not really there, is a reflection of how practices shift and shape themselves to survive in new surroundings.
The upshot of this justification is that Horowitz plays Mozart. But need there be a downside, that Mozart is off-limits to the rest of us, when he so clearly needn't be, that his music is actually a boon to the amateur more than nearly any class of performer? I think it's time we set Mozart, and amateur musicians, free from this bromide.