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Abstractionism in Mozart from Jumppanen at Gardner


Finnish pianist Paavali Jumppanen attempted to bring something new in “The Complete Mozart Piano Sonatas, Part I” at the Gardner Museum, on Sunday, October 17. What was most rewarding was to hear the first four sonatas played sequentially. However, I would question the the 36-year-old pianist’s decision to conclude his program with the Sonata No.6 in D Major, K. 284, which felt overly long and took a toll, I believe, on much of the full house. Leaving out the fifth sonata, moreover, was, simply, unsatisfying from any historical or instructive perspective.

If there were such a thing as musical police, Jumppanen would have been pulled over and ticketed on more than one occasion, his performance license most likely suspended, if not revoked, for the numerous instances of noisy speeding. What choices he made in performing Mozart’s first sonatas raised the biggest question of all: what will it be like listening to all 18 sonatas (multiplying that number by three movements) played with such abstract sameness prevailing throughout?

In order to imagine his playing this afternoon, one might think of the Finnish pianist’s performance as being diametrically opposite that of the Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida. It was a monochromatic afternoon. Mozart’s coach could not have been as noisy, or have been as fast as Jumppanen would have assumed. Take the piano out of pianoforte and you have Jumppanen.

Further still, take the human out of Mozart and you have the mechanistic art of Jumppanen, who, I want to believe, is trying to carve a niche for himself in the tough world of concert music-making. But why the interpretive decisions he made? There is not one iota of doubt in my mind that he came to the piano fully prepared, having memorized the programmed sonatas, ready to give his careful attention to playing each and every phrase of the music.

A trill is a small thing, but no less important than anything else. Listening to a trill can inform. Today, Mozart’s trills were afforded only a modicum of expression, if any at all. Observing the young man’s expression gave but the slightest indication of anything evolving at the human level, say dancing or singing. In Menuetto I from the Sonata No. 4 in E-flat Major, K. 282, yet another speeding violation would have been in order.

Remember the succinct question-and-answer opening of the little minuet? Q: Would you care to dance? A: Yes, I would like to dance. And they dance: an arching phrase or dance-like gesture, pairing both right and left hands, ensues. Then follows a descending scale suggesting that one of the pair might have been distracted. While the music conveys dance, none of this was even hinted at in this performance. Rather, it was made abstract.

Perhaps Jumppanen’s goal to find some new way to present Mozart piano sonatas caused him to be reminded of the earlier Rococo era and that once exciting musical move called the “Mannheim rocket.” In Sonata No.3 in B-flat Major, K. 281, such explosions made the music sound urgent, heavy, metronomic, never fluid, and never personal.

Hearing Sonata No. 1 in C Major, K. 279 and Sonata No. 2 in F Major, K. 280 was akin to experiencing the same thing over again. Character and mood are not summoned up from the fingers that are all too apt to create percussive piano sound more expected in the music of Pierre Boulez, for one, which Jumppanen plays convincingly. A rethinking of Mozart clearly is in order for this young man.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston,  was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier  Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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