Notes and Editorial Reviews
This wonderfully illuminating disc led by John Gardiner's penetratingly perceptive conducting is the most challenging and exciting performance in my experience.
In his splendid book Inside Early Music—Conversations with Performers (20:6), Bernard D. Sherman confronts a central paradox of the so-called authentic movement. "How," he asks, "can we apply the movement's original concern with fidelity when we're dealing with composers who composed their music anew at every performance?" This pertinent question, which extends beyond the parameters of the early-music movement, is particularly relevant to one of the greatest canons of works in Western music, the Mozart piano concertos. Mozart's success during
his early years in Vienna was founded not on his compositions but on his supreme ability as a pianist, and above all on his ability to improvise. From his childhood on, witness after witness testified to his extraordinary ability to extemporize at the keyboard.
As a performer Mozart carried such skills with him into the concert hall and salon, frequently leaving parts of his scores in skeletal outline to be filled in during the course of the performance. Indeed, in one remarkable instance, the Violin Sonata in G, K 379 (373a), Mozart records that he was so pressed for time that by the time of the first performance his piano part remained unwritten. His answer? Well, of course, he extemporized it, writing the piano part in later when he was less pushed. It's a story that reveals not only the level of musicianship of Mozart and his violinist partner Antonio Brunetti (the Salzburg concertmaster), but also an understanding of how the musical lingua franca of the day could see accomplished players through such a problem. Nor was an ability to extemporize and ornament in performance confined to outstanding professionals such as Mozart. At much the same time in England the musical diarist John Marsh was approvingly noting the capability of a young lady amateur he heard to "fill out [my italics] an Adagio." In other words, she ornamented the bare outline of the music.
The art of improvisation was carried over into the 19th century, but by that time taste had changed, and few were sufficiently interested in Mozart's piano concertos to create the line of descent that would have been so enlightening today. By the time of the 20th-century revival of the cycle, a new orthodoxy had arisen. Based entirely on late-19th- and early-20th-century theories of "fidelity to the score," Mozart's piano concertos were embalmed in a reverential strait-jacket. Now elevated to his plinth as one of the greats, Mozart was too great a composer to be tinkered with. What you saw in the score was what you played. Until, that is, the advent of Malcolm Bilson, who in the 1970s grabbed the situation by the throat by not only insisting that Mozart's true intentions could be realized only on fortepianos of the type he played, but, equally crucially, by accepting that Mozart's scores were not sacrosanct, lapidary statements but a living framework that required vital input from their performers.
Bilson was fortunately allowed to put his ideas into practice in the groundbreaking series made for Archiv, a cycle followed (and yet to be completed) by the even more radical approach of another American fortepianist, Robert Levin. Whereas Bilson was content to add ornamentation at Mozart's fermata and other places were he felt the scores required it (mostly in "slow" movements), Levin has gone one step further by returning to Mozart's own practice of adding ornamentation and extemporizing cadenzas during his performances and recording sessions. It may reasonably be argued (and it has been) that setting such a performance down as a recording immediately negates the object of the exercise, which is to return to Mozart's own principle of creating a fresh work each time one of his concertos is played. It's a problem that Levin himself is well aware of, having written of the desirability of his recordings perhaps including two or three different improvised cadenzas that could be cued in at choice.
The pioneering work of Bilson and Levin has infinitely greater de facto evidence on its side than the heated espousal of one-per-part Bach choruses. Yet, astonishingly, it remains largely without emulation by other performers, who still (whether or not using a forte piano) persist in conforming to the notion of playing and recording these great works by the printed score. Why should this be so? Legitimate historical or musical arguments? I don't think so. I am not aware of any, but if there are I've not heard them. Rather, I would bluntly suggest, because teachers and players are simply too lazy-minded to take the trouble to learn the largely lost arts of ornamentation and extemporization. Equally reprehensible are those critics who, either from ignorance or their own lazy-mind-edness, continue unthinkingly to endorse the unembellished offerings of such practitioners as constituting a "stylish" way of playing Mozart.
Bilson's revelatory cycle of the concertos was a truly epoch-making event that is still available as a complete set on Archiv 463111-2. The entire set would justify a place in any Classical "Hall of Fame," but I've chosen to focus on one disc that ideally illustrates some of the points made above. Both K 466 and K 467 contain passages in their central movements where Mozart is clearly asking the performer to add his own ornamentation. Both occur at much the same point in the movement, the continuation of the opening theme (If, bar 40 in the Romance of K 466, and ff. bar 37 in the Andante of K 467). In each instance Mozart invites the player to start extemporizing with a suggestion of his own, a turn. One should need only to hear Bilson's tasteful ornamentation of these two passages to be convinced of the absolute "righedtness" of such an approach. Indeed, in K 466 it would be possible to argue that Bilson might have added further decoration at the point where the main theme returns in tranquility after the demonic energy of the central section. Levin does so in his recording to magical, exquisite effect, a mood retained until the final, gently ornamented few bars, played out is if the player was making the music up as he went. Which in a sense he was.
But, of course, Mozart's piano concertos are about far, far more than ornamentation. They are also about tempo, articulation, nuance, fingerwork, color, and choice of instrument, all matters on which Bilson's recordings provided countless examples of enlightenment. Let's take choice of instalment first, and here I must profoundly disagree with my esteemed colleague Bernard Jacobson. Writing recently in 24:5, Jacobson suggested that "modern instruments, played with an awareness of historical performance practice, can provide the best of both worlds." Well, no, I don't think they do, and for exactly the reason Jacobson goes on to claim they can: "partly because the dynamic contrasts they make possible go beyond[my italics] what most period instrument performers are able to achieve." In other words, performers on the modern piano are providing a modern transcription of the music, not attempting a faithful reproduction of the concerto as it was in Mozart's day. For an outstanding illustration of my point we can return to the disc at hand. The opening Allegro of K 466 is a huge symphonic movement occupying Don Giovanni country, an intense, dark, dramatic world in which Mozart is pushing music to and even beyond emotional breaking point in 18th-century terms (why do you think Beethoven admired this concerto so much?). This is how Bilson and Eliot Gardiner approach the movement. From the moment the conductor unleashes the central thrust of the movement with almost frightening ferocity, the attuned listener senses every performer and his/her instrument being pushed to the limit. The result is at once the most challenging and exciting performance in my experience, a performance to make one realize afresh just how radical a composer Mozart was, far too much so for the Viennese, who would soon drop him like a hot potato.
Articulation (and by extension subtlety of nuance) becomes much more acute with use of "period" instruments. Mozart uses two kinds of marking where he wants to ensure notes are quite detached, a dot, which, rather than carrying implications of staccato, calls for the lightest of détaché effects, and a wedge, which calls for rather more emphasis. Creating an audible distinction between the two is nearly impossible on the modern piano, where the longer period of decay makes the former an effect virtually out of reach, and renders the latter in danger of conveying too portentous an emphasis. Bilson consistently uses these markings to marvelous expressive effect, but you might try the piano's opening statement of the theme of the finale of K 467 (immediately after the ein gang following the fermata) as a particular example.
Diversity of color is yet another feature of the pianos of Mozart's day that has quite a different function, indeed an opposite function, from the modern piano, whose main objective is to create an evenly produced timbre across its register. Not so the fortepiano, which was designed with three contrasted sonorities—treble, middle, and bass—that would provide quite distinctive and coloristic effect. Thus when Mozart writes a long, descending, scalic sequence he is not merely making a dramatic gesture but exploiting the contrast inherent in his instrument. Such exploitation extends to many further instances; readers with access to a score might look at bars 30 to 33 of K 467's Andante, where the huge leaps serve a similar function.
This is a long, retrospective review that astute readers will by now have recognized has a dual purpose. The first, perhaps a little underhanded within this context, is polemical–-an attempt to reignite an argument that seems to have gone cool. The second, more appropriately, is simply to draw attention to a wonderfully illuminating disc. Much more could be said about these performances, so forgive me for making one last observation. A major factor in their success is Eliot Gardiner's penetratingly perceptive conducting, not least in his recognition that the winds need to be allowed true emancipation to realize Mozart's matchless Harmoniemusik writing. Examples abound in the present performances, but I'll restrict myself to the exchange between piano and winds near the end of the Andante of K 467. It lasts only three bars, but what ravishing sounds, a moment to savor on a disc to relish.
-- Brian Robins, Fanfare
Works on This Recording
Concerto for Piano no 20 in D minor, K 466 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Malcolm Bilson (Fortepiano)
John Eliot Gardiner
English Baroque Soloists
Written: 1785; Vienna, Austria
Concerto for Piano no 21 in C major, K 467 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Malcolm Bilson (Piano)
John Eliot Gardiner
English Baroque Soloists
Written: 1785; Vienna, Austria
Featured Sound Samples
Piano Concerto no 20: I. Allegro
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