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Levin Promises Lively Account of Mozart Concerto


Robert Levin to improvise Friday

As a conductorless ensemble, A Far Cry is not also a rudderless one. The Criers’ practice is to allow each of the 17 players a turn to steer through the selection of a program. Thus did violinist Miki-Sophia Cloud chart “Improvisation” for January 9th at Jordan Hall. Comprising Francesco Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso in E Minor, Op. 3 No. 3, Ljova’s Throw The Book (world premiere) Perapaskaro, arr. Ljova: Turceasca, Frederic Rzewski’s Les Moutons de Panurge, the evening features Mozart’s Piano Concerto K. 449 with Robert Levin, pianist, scholar and improviser extraordinaire.

Cloud’s conversation with BMInt’s artistic advisor, Robert Levin follows.

MSC: It’s been thrilling and illuminating working with you this week on Mozart’s E-flat Major Concerto, (K. 449). As an artist known for your intimate and comprehensive knowledge of Mozart’s body of work, what in particular sets this piece apart?

RL: I’ve always been fascinated by the pieces that Mozart composed for performance by others. We think of the piano concertos principally as vehicles for his own virtuosity. He gave subscription concerts to so-called academies, primarily during the Lenten season when the theaters were closed and therefore the public sought other forms of entertainment. Mozart made a good living for a few years doing this, when his fortunes were riding the crest of a wave. Then, he became a bit of a spent force, because people knew about him and he was old-hat. So, after a while, it was harder for him to market himself. Notwithstanding the fact that most of his concertos were indeed written for performance by himself, there is a choice number that he wrote for others. In the case of K. 449, the E-flat Concerto—it’s the first of at least two concertos (and as I have tried to persuade my colleagues, maybe 3 concertos) that he wrote for Barbara Ployer, who was a pupil of Mozart’s—as a pianist, but also in theory and composition. Not only did he teach her these things, but we have the manuscript of her studies with Mozart, and on one of the pages, there’s even a little caricature of her that he’s drawn, with curly hair and so on…

Is it a flattering depiction?

…well…I’d say it’s somewhere in the middle… but clearly, Mozart had a good relationship with her, and the quality of her own playing can be gleaned by the music that he wrote for her: 1) this E-flat concerto, 2) the G Major Concerto (K. 453), and, as I believe, the most famous of all of these, 3) the A Major Concerto (K 488). What I find is that the concertos Mozart wrote for women regularly display a very pronounced interest in color. Usually the second movements in particular are very luminous and contain a kind of language which is radiant and different from the kind of music that he writes for himself.

This is also a concerto like four others that Mozart wrote which were designed to be played with or without wind parts. In this case, oboes and horns. In K. 449, as well as the three subscription concertos, K. 413, K. 414, K. 415, and also the “Coronation Concerto,” which is a much later piece, he designates they can be played “a quattro.” I don’t actually think, as some people do, that this means that we play with string quartet, but rather that we play with string orchestra, as we are doing with A Far Cry. 

Interesting that the wind parts are so flexible. 

It’s fascinating to see how he writes when the wind parts are there for color and reinforcement, but aren’t essential. Nobody wrote piano concertos with more exquisite wind parts than Mozart, and the mature Viennese concertos of 1784-1787 contain really exquisite wind band music, and by the time we get to the C Minor Concerto (K. 491), they almost completely push the strings to the side. In the second movement of the that piece, I think that the first violin plays the melody leading for only eight bars in the entire movement. So, Mozart in K. 449 is looking for something a little bit different from that, and one of the reasons he is probably writing with ad libitum winds here is to make it possible, commercially, for Barbara Ployer’s father to hire some string players to be able to perform this piece in private without making it economically ruinous.

I’ve heard you say that Mozart is nothing if not practical.

Oh, he’s totally practical. I mean, we see this all of the time. Practical in many ways. He’ll write for the specific abilities of a singer or instrumentalists, even if that means that other singers or instrumentalists will find what he’s written difficult or impossible to play. He’s very much interested in the benefits of the moment. We often think of composers on the highest level as writing for the sublime and writing for eternity, but we see here that Mozart is writing for the moment, and each one of his pieces is designed to be played on a particular evening. And if it turns out that the circumstances are to change, then he’ll change things. In the case of one of the subscription concertos from 1782-83, K. 415, the emperor came and heard Mozart play this piece. Then, two or three weeks later, Mozart repeated the concerto, which was very unusual for him to do, and he found out that the emperor was coming—again! It was unthinkable to him to subject the emperor to listen to exactly the same concerto, even though he would be improvising as he always did. So he added trumpets and drums to “spruce up the piece” a little bit, so the emperor wouldn’t be bored. Of course, everybody these days tends to play the piece with the trumpets and drums, because that’s the last version, but that’s not the original concept of the piece, and maybe if the emperor came a third time—who knows? He probably wouldn’t have added xylophone and accordion, but… I think we don’t tend to look at these people as being that practical, or we don’t understand that when we look at the manuscript of a piece, it’s really the blueprint of a specific performance, and not necessarily a legacy work of art.

Do you think he ever had in mind the continuation of his legacy?

I think he was completely aware of what an extraordinary musical mind he had. The way he writes to his father about aesthetic points—certainly he enjoyed sparring and discussing with his father certain aspects of his art and his craft, but one cannot help but think when he writes about how he composes the arias in The Abduction from the Seraglio or Idomeneo, that he is well aware that other people are going to be reading these letters in the future, and he wants them to understand the nature of his thoughts. So, there is certainly on the one hand an absolutely pragmatic approach to the challenges of what he has to do. For example, the way he notates his music in layers—writing the most important lines first and then coming back and adding the secondary lines, and then fleshing out the trumpets and drums and then doing a little bit of polishing and revision. He does that in such a way that if his work is interrupted by a commission for something else, that he’ll have a maximum amount on paper, so that he won’t come back to it after three days or three weeks or three months and think “Now, what in the devil did i have in mind here? I can’t remember.” So, everything he does is tremendously practical, and yet, he has this astounding information retrieval system in his mind. With that, he can remember something that he heard ten years before, which is discombobulating, to say the least.

Do you think Mozart’s approach was largely intuitive, or was there also a highly cerebral element?

Oh, there was definitely a cerebral element. He is alleged to have said: “People think I have it easy. People don’t realize how hard I work.” Certainly, every composer has a gift, and they have an intuitive free-spinning approach to things. They fly by the seat of their pants and they invent things. I mean, a composer like Schubert is extraordinarily instinctive in that respect, and goes off on these glorious tangents. A composer like Haydn or Beethoven or Brahms is very concerned with craftsmanship. They work hard, and Beethoven’s sketches show us to what degree he tormented himself, constantly revising and crossing out and returning to things. And certainly a composer who was as precocious as Mendelssohn or Mozart arrived in adolescence writing with tremendous ease, but one sees in both of those cases (and those are two of the most supremely gifted musicians in terms of natural equipment that the world has ever seen)—as they get older, they become more and more aware of the necessity of craftsmanship. They too torment themselves, and work much more consciously and rigorously. We see Mendelssohn withholding the “Italian Symphony” from publication because he thought it wasn’t good enough, and then revising it to make it sound more like Schumann (which actually didn’t make it sound better, because he wasn’t Schumann—he was Mendelssohn!).

And we see Mozart, for instance, in his three last symphonies, using material that’s common to all three works: two descending or ascending semitones. The second subject of the “Jupiter” Symphony goes up and semitone, then up a semitone again, while the second subject of the 40th Symphony, the G Minor, goes down a semitone, then down a semitone again, and so on. The chance that those things are coincidence is close to zero. Clearly the older Mozart got, the more he felt the responsibility of his gifts, and the more he felt this, the more consciously he crafted and worked. It is fascinating to hold the manuscript in one’s hands, when one sees the different intents—the corrections he makes. It is so extraordinarily inspiring to get even a tiny sense of what is going on in a mind that powerful. It can make one exalt for weeks on end just to think one knows why he replaced that half note with a quarter note and a quarter rest, or why he decided to move something from the second oboe to the first clarinet. Sometimes, it can be very mundane, but often, it’s amazing. Because, for Mozart, doing something which is good is not enough. Doing something which is excellent is not enough. It has to be something so breathtakingly spectacular that any other musician would just want to put a bullet through their brain, because it’s just hopeless! 

Speaking of Mozart’s life-long molding of his artistic gifts, how would you describe this current moment in your own life as an artist?

There’s no question about the fact that to live with music of this kind is a constantly renewed voyage of discovery. One over and over notices things that one hasn’t noticed before. That’s inevitable, because no matter how we internalize the language, there are still things that we may have overlooked, and cause our jaw to drop like. The more I work on the music, the more details I discover that enchant and amaze me. One of the unfortunate things is that as one’s wisdom grows (at least, one hopes it grows), one is also struggling against entropy, because our organism as we age sometimes makes it more difficult technically to master certain things that we could do very easily when we were very young. So there’s a constant challenge to maintain the physical organism so that it can serve in an optimum way the music and one’s constantly deepening perceptions of what it can and must say. It’s a balancing act, and I don’t think any serious musician ever gets to a point where they think they’ve found out everything they can find out about a piece.

So your interpretations are constantly evolving.

Are there things I do in K. 449 that I did 15 years ago? Undoubtedly, because there are certain ways that the music expresses itself. There are certain turns of phrase that are characteristic of Mozart’s language, and when you understand those things, they become second nature to you. Those things are probably not going to change, but even as an actor on the stage will start to shape and emphasize certain words, move on the stage in a different way—so we, as our perceptions of different options grow and multiply, add to the normal declamation of the music as we have come to know it. There are things in this music that make it particular and peculiar. A composer like Mozart, who was so extraordinarily impatient with consistency, who has a kind of attention deficit disorder, and is changing his character from second to second in extraordinary ways, creates changes which can be read very carefully by simply looking at the surface at his rhythms, but looking at his chord vocabulary. You can see when the music changes, because it looks different on the page. Trying to make it consistent, trying to turn it into something which can be packaged as “ready to play,” is going to shortchange the piece  tragically. 

When do you improvise in the 14th concerto, is it just in the cadenzas?

No. I improvise during all of the orchestral tuttis and I improvise ornamentation throughout as appropriate. There is a first-movement cadenza and a last-movement lead-in (a shorter cadenza that is prompted by a pause on a dominant seventh chord, rather than the tonic six-four that initiates a cadenza).

So do you ever publish cadenzas?

I have written published cadenzas for the Mozart violin concertos (Universal-Edition), the flute, flute and harp, oboe, horn, and bassoon concertos (Henle), the symphonie concertante for flute, oboe, horn, and bassoon (Bärenreiter) and the Beethoven violin concerto (Henle). I have refrained from publishing cadenzas to the piano concertos, though I composed cadenzas for the C-minor concerto K.491 for Ya-Fei.

Can your playing be improvisatory even when you are playing just the notes that Mozart wrote?

Most definitely. There is an impulsive volatility to Mozart’s rhetoric, and one should bring a whimsical sense to the shaping of the discourse. Things can sound different every time even if not a note is changed; but it is an historical fact that at the time decoration was assumed. (An important document supporting this practice is an elaborate written-out embellishment to the second movement of the A-major concerto K.488 in the hand of Barbara Ployer—the dedicatee of the concerto K.449 I am performing tonight.)

Perhaps this last question takes us full circle. This week’s collaboration is particularly meaningful to the three of us in A Far Cry who studied with you during our undergraduate years at Harvard, where you shaped so much of our sense of musical integrity and purpose. I suppose it’s fitting that we’re playing together a piece that Mozart gave to a pupil. What is it like to collaborate with your former students?

I can say that there is nothing in my professional life that gives me greater joy than to see those whom I’ve tried to mentor, encourage and inspire, rise and become their own artists in their own right, taking their rightful places. When I switch from being someone who has tried to teach and cultivate to a colleague, then that, to me, is a celebration of what my whole life is about.

Miki-Sophia Cloud (file photo)
Since 2009, Miki-Sophia Cloud has been a core member of A Far Cry, where her leadership as concertmaster and soloist as well as her concert programming have been acclaimed by the New York Times and Boston Globe. An alumna of Harvard College, Vienna Music University, Yale School of Music, and the Perlman Music Program, Cloud is currently a doctoral candidate at New England Conservatory.

 See related review here.

Friday January 9, 8pm
New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall
Francesco Geminiani: Concerto Grosso in E Minor, Op. 3 No. 3
Ljova: Throw The Book (world premiere)
Frederic Rzewski: Les Moutons de Panurge
W. A. Mozart: Piano Concerto K 449
Perapaskaro, arr. Ljova: Turceasca

Featuring Robert Levin, piano

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1 Comment [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. This was a wonderful concert, and the Mozart was just gorgeous.

    Comment by Kitty Martin — January 10, 2015 at 9:57 am

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