Mozart: the ultimate challenge

Having just posted a video on learning and teaching the B-flat Major Sonata, K570, I found myself thinking more about Mozart’s music: its challenges, and its rewards.

It took a long time before I became ‘comfortable’ learning and performing Mozart. Even as a fairly adept young professional, I steered away from programming Mozart in recitals; I knew I wasn’t doing the music justice — especially the slow movements. I’m more confident now (after playing Mozart for half a century!) but I still feel that Mozart starts out easy, gets harder the more I work on it, and then — if I‘m lucky — starts to sound and feel gracious, graceful, and easy again.

I still find Mozart challenging to teach. There are a plethora of details to absorb (voicing, pedalling, ornamentation, phrasing, pacing, articulation…) yet playing Mozart well involves transcending those challenges, so none of them actually draws our listeners’ attention. I think that, though the details can be taught, putting them together into a convincing whole is a real test of a student’s musicality.

That sense of the ease and inevitability in Mozart’s music is eloquently discussed in a new biography I’m reading. Mozart: the reign of love, by Jan Swafford, is a thorough and entertaining look at Wolfgang’s life, loves, and music. I recommend it. And when you get to page 420, feel free to listen to this. It’s my live recording of the slow movement from the C Major Sonata, K330. Some of my favourite music.

Sonata in C Major, K330, second movement: Andante cantabile, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Jamie Syer, piano. Live performance at the Victoria Conservatory of Music’s Alix Goolden Performance Hall, Victoria, British Columbia.

A fine new Beethoven biography

Jan Caeyers is a Belgian conductor, who has written a fabulous biography of Ludwig van B, first published in Dutch in 2009, and recently translated into English. It’s a pleasure to read a book like this, sympathetically written by such a literate musician.

He tells Beethoven’s story well — puncturing a few myths along the way, but portraying with eloquence and empathy Beethoven’s personality, foibles, and struggles. The book is not overbalanced with musical analysis, but does cover the pivotal works (Eroica, Fidelio, Missa solemnis, among many others) in a way that can be appreciated equally by professionals and amateurs. Several times, I found myself going to YouTube to fill the gaps in my aural memory.

Caeyers is also good at discussing Beethoven’s personal relationships. Not only the love affairs (including the mysterious ‘immortal beloved‘) but his tempestuous friendships, and of course, the long and ultimately tragic episode involving his nephew, Karl.

It’s a big book (almost 700 pages including indexes) but I came away with a rekindled understanding of the man, his time, and — above all — his music.