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.

in praise of sir donald

Donald Francis Tovey, that is. Know him? He was a musicologist and composer, active in the UK during the first third of the twentieth century. But that potted description doesn’t do justice to his writings about music: always perceptive, insightful, erudite — and witty. Here’s a DFT classic, on Beethoven:

We do not expect a return to the home tonic to be associated with a theme we have never heard before, any more than we expect on returning from our holiday to find our house completely redecorated and refurnished and inhabited by total strangers.

Beethoven, Oxford University Press 1945.

I first made my acquaintance when, early in my teens, I bought a copy of the Associated Board edition of the Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues: the Well-Tempered Clavier. Each Prelude and Fugue is preceded by a short essay, describing the musical and technical challenges, form and interpretation, and including such bon mots as this:

The old reading that adds a low B-flat octave in an additional bar is perhaps the most Philistine single printed chord in the whole history of music.

The tempo is lively enough for the last four bars to give considerable trouble, however they are fingered.

both from Forty-Eight Preludes and Fugues, J. S. Bach, Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, in print since 1924.

And I haven’t even mentioned his Companion to Beethoven’s Pianoforte Sonatas, or the best essay ever conceived on the piano concertos of Mozart. Sir Donald was writing 100 years ago, with knowledge and humility: a potent combination.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e8/Sir_Donald_Francis_Tovey.jpg