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Off with Mozart's wig

Wolfram Goertz surveys the newest Mozart recordings by a new generation of soloists

He made us suffer. We wore ourselves out rehearsing his music. He lay there, so shiny and pure, the shimmer of his enigmatic beauty was so unbearable. We were simply too young for him. When, to our relief, Beethoven's booming epics were set down in front of us we put Mozart, the apollonian stranger, aside. Mozart literally scared off swathes of young pianists, who couldn't make head or tail of his quicksilver lightness, the magic of his pensive andantes, his descents into countless adagios or his furious prestos.

Wasn't he Rococo? Didn't he wear a wig? Wasn't his music made of porcelain? Did it have any of sort of message at all? Beethoven, on the other hand, was passionate. For Mozart you could hardly be mature enough, and those who were had a hard time finding their way back to him. Pianists prefer to play Chopin and Liszt, Schumann and Debussy, Beethoven and Ravel. With them the concert hall booms. With Mozart it coughs softly. (Audio samples)

But now the Mozart year is approaching, and suddenly everything looks different. Even the young, aspiring musicians are captivated once more. No one gets past Mozart. How much of this is a sense of duty and how much devotion? With pianist Martin Stadtfeld it's hard to say. He needs to ward off the swarm of media around his unique talent as the exceptional Bach interpreter before it closes in and suffocates him. Mozart could be a welcome escape. Stadtfeld sought refuge in the concertos in minor chords, of which Bach for his part wrote only two. He plays "Concerto No. 20 in D minor", K.466, as if he's whipping off the wig and then letting in the storm of "Don Giovanni".

Stadtfeld performs confidently, accompanied by the symphonic grandeur of the NDR symphony orchestra conducted by Bruno Weil. Still, he races through the piece as if hounded by it. He plays the romance so nonchalantly that it doesn't bear comparison with Clara Haskil, Friedrich Gulda or Edwin Fischer, who all probed this lingering movement like a sweet oracle. Stadtfeld wants to purge himself of this sweetness, he's suspicious of it and grateful for each movement he can put between himself and this sacred lyricism. Yet this drags him into insignificance.

At one point in the first movement of the Concerto in D Minor, Stadtfeld seems so lost that you want to send him right back to Bach before any more damage is done. Here he has composed his own cadenza and its banging chords and unrefined sequences are reminiscent of an early Beethoven who just failed his composition exam. And in the opening of "Concerto No.24 in C minor", K.491, Stadtfeld sprinkles a superfluous pinch of piano into the orchestra's prelude, throwing in broken triads, hoping the world will say with sheer delight: "That Stadtfeld, such an innovator, pure genius!" But it's merely needless pomposity.

Surely a shrewder approach is to analyse the wealth of interpretation shored up over the decades. Hilary Hahn, another highly gifted musician, is proof that this method works. Her Mozart is fresh, true-to-life, unaffected. She plays a quartet of violin sonatas, which are really sonatas for violin and piano – and the piano is by no means less important. Hilary Hahn knows that only too well, but she is a typical solo violinist who likes the limelight. Take the opening bars of "Sonata No.7 in F major", K.376, for example.

With virtually every stroke she shows that her strings are made of steel and can be electrified unpleasantly and continuously by short, sharp shocks of vibrato. However softly she tries to play an accompanying melody her violin screams, "Listen to me, I haven't disappeared!" The levels in the recording studio take care of the rest making the excellent pianist Natalie Zhu just that little bit quieter, so that the four beautiful sonatas for violin and piano (that's their original name) are reverted into typical violin sonatas: one plays the lady, the other the maid.

The word "natural" takes on a whole different meaning in the young violinist from Munich, Julia Fischer. She hasn't yet reached Hilary Hahn's level of fame; she still has to work on her image, but she plays neither "Concerto No.3 in G Major", K.216 nor "Concerto No.4 in D major", K.218, as though she's having to work at them. Fischer throws herself into it, varying the dynamic beautifully. Her strings don't sound like she's twanging electric fences and her cadenzas in both concertos are by no means frivolous, but match the style perfectly. Unfortunately the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra conducted by Yakov Kreizberg echoes around the concert hall and only manages to get 95 percent of the notes right.

Perhaps where Hahn and Stadtfeld go wrong is that they don't have teachers any more. Or if they do, they're the type who have to be able to do the whole repertoire, from Bach to Prokofiev. For Mozart, general scholarship isn't enough. He demands more labour-intensive, exclusive attention. It would be worth introducing these two star musicians to conductor Roger Norrington, who for a long time now has been encouraging his musicians to play modern instruments "in an historically informed" way, as he puts it. This basically means thinking about one phrase at a time. Nothing should be left to tradition. The preconceived ideas about what is important and what is not have to be re-assessed. The "Piano Concerto No.16 in D major", K.451, is a good example of how the soloist needs to strike the right balance between freedom and humility. Here the piano is virtually another member of the orchestra, complementing the nimble flutes and the gentle murmuring of the harps. Often only one hand is kept busy. Those who want to play the hero here have missed the point.

Norrington rehearsed this concerto with pianist Sebastian Knauer and the Camerata Salzburg just a stone's throw from Mozart's birthplace. Right from the start you're enveloped by the pure glory of the orchestra's sound. But this is not a majestic passage, instead it's more like the day of Creation when God made the first flowers: never before has the work been such an idyll of lush beauty, charm and colour. At one point a pretty little viola motif crops up which you could have sworn was not in the score. When Knauer begins his solo, your first thought is: what understatement! Doesn't he want to make it onto the poster? But this delicate style is Mozart's hallmark. Knauer doesn't stride around like an athlete; he wanders like a dreamer, like an agile Franciscan communing with nature. The result is enchanting, as if he's tiptoeing through the Garden of Eden.

As if Knauer has been kissed by a muse in Salzburg and wants to pass the kiss along, the CD includes a sonata for violin and piano, played with violinist Daniel Hope. The violin opens the "Sonata in G Major", K.379, with a fragmented second inversion chord in G major. The top note B is repeated 3 times and with each repetition Hope, master of the filigree, finds a new texture, a new vibrato, reaches a greater height of intensity. It has the choral quality and range of chamber music and is two days in a horse and carriage away from the solid, plodding style of Hilary Hahn.

The last to step into the Mozart ring is pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and that really is no surprise. He who scrawled courage, risk and versatility on the Tricolour, who showed his multiple personalities by playing Ives and Ravel, Beethoven and Ligeti, Debussy and Messiaen at the same concert, why shouldn't he, out of the blue, have a go at Mozart? But Aimard didn't choose just any old piano concertos, he picked the bluest from out of the blue; the three piano concertos in B flat major (K.238, 450 and 595). For the first time Aimard doubled up as conductor for this recording, but with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe you only need raise an eyebrow and they start to play with the utmost grace.

The orchestra is also enjoying what it's playing, and nowhere is that as wonderfully audible as in the second section of "Piano Concerto No.6 in B flat", K.238. The strings play a short, leisurely phrase which is usually rounded off with vigour. Here they seem to be deliriously tipsy, as if Mozart has gone to their heads. Aimard himself is so taken by it all that he yelps into the microphone just before bar 76.

This is loyally rendered in the live recording from Graz, and we're grateful for this human interruption, for the listener is also beside himself. This is one of the most exquisite Mozart recordings of all time. Aimard plays Mozart with grandeur and wit, with passion and ease, with Latin clarity and grandezza, he is lyrical without overdoing it, he brings out Mozart's severity and Mozart's compassion. In short: He is the ideal Mozart pianist. Because he loves him. And because he waited long enough.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on October 13, 2005.

Wolfram Goertz is a journalist for Die Zeit.

Translation: Abby Darcy.

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