Interview with Rachel Barton Pine: the Complete Mozart Concertos

January 29, 2015, 8:54 PM · Did you know that it takes longer to perform all five of Mozart's violin concertos in a row, than it does to play all 24 of Paganini's Caprices?

Chicago-based violinist Rachel Barton Pine, who just released a recording of the complete Mozart Concertos, should know; she's performed both cycles, in live-concert marathon form. Of course, for most of us humans, either task would be daunting. For Rachel, she's willing to take such challenges, even when piled onto other challenges, like having a newborn.

"I was invited to do a concert with all five Mozart concertos in a single evening, in October of 2011 -- before I found out that I was going to have a baby in September of 2011!" Rachel said. "So that first concert of five Mozart concertos ended up being three weeks after I gave birth, which is a little extreme. I thought, 'Couldn't I have done something easy for my first concert back, like the Brahms Concerto?' Of course, that's a joke, the Brahms isn't easy. But compared to all five Mozarts, come on!"

Rachel Barton Pine

Rachel has been in love with the Mozart concertos since she was six, when she heard another student play the first movement of Mozart's Concerto No. 3 in G. At the time, she had never heard the music of Mozart performed live.

"That made a huge impression," Rachel said. "I thought this was the most beautiful music, and so happy. Actually, to this day, No. 3 remains my favorite, which I don't think is completely attributable to its having been my first impression. I think it's also because G major is such a friendly key. I admire the A major most of all, and probably 100 percent of people would agree. It's fabulous; it's so satisfying. But the G major just feels like my good friend. There's something comforting about it, and it makes me happy to play it."

The first Mozart concerto that Rachel actually studied was the fourth, in D major, and that was also the first one she performed publicly, at age 10.

"By that point, I had seen the Amadeus movie and had also seen a number of Mozart's operas on Live from The Met, which was one of the few (television shows) my parents would let us stay up late for," Rachel said. "The Amadeus movie is not necessarily historically factual, but I think they did capture the essence of Mozart's personality: his hyperactive persona -- the way he'd be bouncing down the streets with music playing in his head -- and also the drama that he brought to the opera, which was so well-captured by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and the other musicians in that movie."

Speaking of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and conductor Neville Marriner -- this is the very group with which Rachel recorded her recent release, which includes Violin Concertos 1-5 and the Sinfonia Concertante, with violist Matthew Lipman.

"It was such a great honor to work with Sir Neville Marriner, who has been one of my musical heroes for most of my life," Rachel said. "It was amazing, at age 89, that he has so much energy for the recording sessions. I'd be going back to my hotel to collapse at the end of the day, and he'd be running off to Cambridge to give a lecture, assuring me, 'Don't worry, I'll catch the train and be back in London by the time of our next session in the morning!' It was so inspiring, his suggestions and his commitment to this music. And of course, the orchestra was absolutely great."

Playing Mozart requires a bit of that drama brought out in Amadeus, but also a light touch. It can be a real challenge.

"Now that we've lived past the Classical era, into the Romantic era and beyond, the problem when we approach Classical music is that we want to get rid of a certain thickness and heaviness that we cultivate for later repertoire," Rachel said. "By doing so, Mozart becomes light, but it also can become a bit saccharine, a bit too pleasant. In fact, there's incredible drama and power and vibrancy in Mozart's concertos. Yet when you bring that intensity back, then the thickness returns. So how do you get that intensity without sounding like you're in the Romantic era? That is the challenge for students, and that's what that movie captured so well: this dramatic side of Mozart. If you watch Mozart's operas, you realize that he was, at heart, an opera composer. You can hear that in his concertos. You can almost sense the plots going on: the little moments of dialogue, little mood changes on a dime. He'll have two measures of being playful, then one measure of angst and then another measure of cuteness, then another measure of vivaciousness and then a little moment of calm and then the vivaciousness comes back -- continually mixing it up. To bring all of that out in a dramatic way, really brings this music to life. You can hear a plot happening: a flirtation scene, then the scene where the girl is upset because the guy was spotted with another girl, and then it turns out it was just his best friend in costume, so they get back together and it's okay again. You can hear all these things happening!"

Mozart did not leave any written cadenzas for his violin concertos, and though many violinists use various cadenzas written by violinists from the late 19th or early 20th centuries, Rachel wrote all of her own. (You can find the music for her Mozart Concertos 1-4 cadenzas in The Rachel Barton Pine Collection, along with cadenzas she wrote for the Beethoven, Brahms, and Paganini concertos.)

Rachel wrote most of her cadenzas for Mozart's concertos when she was a teenager, starting with Concerto No. 2, and she completed the last one more recently. She wrote the cadenzas for Concerto No. 1 "right after my daughter was born, so I had a little baby in the basket listening as I was improvising around," she said. "They say Mozart is good for children; she certainly got a healthy dose of it at the very start of her life!"

She feels that her cadenzas for Concerto No. 3 are her most adventurous, though "I didn't get harmonically too far afield; I didn't use any types of chords or chordal patterns that would have been obviously later than the Classical period. But I did push the envelope a little bit with some of the technical devices. Not that some of those things weren't already being done; if you look at Locatelli's Caprices from 1737, he was already using 10ths and all kinds of crazy stuff. So including a few 10ths in a Mozart cadenza -- it's not like adding a Paganini technique that wasn't being done yet. On the other hand, it's pretty certain that Mozart himself wouldn't have done it. If you want to be really strict, within the boundaries of what Mozart would have done, then you're going to do something more like the cadenzas that Robert Levin has published, the really stylistically correct versions. But I wanted to find a balance between something that would feel like it blends with a relatively historically informed approach to Mozart's music, but also true to my personality, because it's a statement about my feelings about Mozart, and who I am as an artist playing Mozart. It's a chance to bring some of my personality into the mix, without sounding like it's oil and water. It's not like the Schnittke cadenza to the Beethoven concerto, where now we've stopped playing Beethoven and we play Schnittke, then we go back to playing Beethoven -- I've never been quite convinced by that approach."

That said, Mozart was more modern than people sometimes know. For example, in Concerto No. 3, "it's this very pastoral concerto, then the last movement is a sort of tune that you might find in a tavern, with these fiddly variations," she said. "A few years ago I performed No. 3 in Vermont, at a festival, and afterwards the reviewer took issue with my having added some modern touches to the last movement, with various chromatic variations and left-hand pizzicato. I had to restrain myself from sending the guy the manuscript of Mozart's concerto, showing how Mozart himself had indicated the chromatic variation and the left-hand pizzicato! The take-away for me: Isn't it marvelous that this concerto, written at the end of the 1700's, still sounded so fresh and contemporary to this reviewer's ears, that he thought that something must be from our time? It's a great statement about Mozart; his music is not dusty and outdated."

Speaking of the manuscript, there are a lot of editions of the Mozart Violin Concertos out there, and it's quite useful to look at the manuscript and urtext editions (versions that follow the manuscript strictly, with no added markings from an editor) when studying these pieces.

"I made the shift to unedited editions at the age of 14, and I never looked back," Rachel said. "I definitely collect edited editions -- because it's like having a masterclass with the guy who edited it. Most of the time, that guy is dead; sometimes that guy is so long-dead that he -- and I say "he" because when was the last time you saw an edition edited by a female? Especially an historic one. A lot of times he is so long-dead that he never recorded it. Or maybe it's a professor-type, like Galamian, who didn't make a recording. So those editions are very useful for us to compare to the unedited version and see what various people's ideas were."

"But having a blank slate over which to make your decisions is absolutely critical," she said. Mozart left few bowings or dynamic markings in his violin scores, though he included more in the orchestra part, which makes it important to look at the score as a whole. "A student, especially in high school, should not be studying a concerto without owning and studying a copy of the mini-score; that would be like learning a play by reading only your lines and never seeing anybody else's lines. Or seeing a movie of the play but never actually looking at the text of the entire script. And by the mini-score, I mean an unedited version. And you can get a good urtext edition of the mini-score without breaking the bank. What you don't want to do is go online and get some random version that you don't know how scholarly it is, it might be edited, it might be unedited, it's free so you think you're getting a bargain, but that's no bargain if you don't really know if you're even getting the right notes."

Back when Mozart was writing his concerti, there were no conductors, as there are today.

"Mozart assumed that whoever was playing the violin solo part would have been leading the orchestra," Rachel said. "Therefore, the violin soloist would have been studying the score just as much as a conductor would, and the violin soloist would have been absolutely aware of all of the dynamic markings in the orchestra parts. The soloist would make decisions about interesting dynamics to do in their solo part, with the orchestra dynamics as a jumping off point."

And to get a bit technical, edited versions sometimes write appoggiaturas as straight eighth notes. "It makes you inflect them differently, if you know that it's an appoggiatura and a quarter note, as opposed to two even eighths," Rachel said. "Why didn't Mozart just write two even eighths? Well the reason is that he wanted you to know that there's a certain special emphasis on the appoggiatura note."

There's another problem with using an edited version: not knowing which was Mozart's idea, and which was the editor's. "If Mozart himself wrote a dynamic, you should make every effort to try to make it work for you, before discarding it. However, if it's an editor's idea, then you can take it with a healthy grain of salt and experiment with other options and maybe use it and maybe not and not feel guilty about it you decide not to use it."

What about the idea that Mozart simply didn't have time to write down all his markings? After all, some of his bowings are quite awkward. Rachel said she had an epiphany about Mozart's bowings, after she acquired a replica of a classical-era bow, back in 1993, using her prize money from the Queen Elisabeth International Competition. "It really revolutionized my understanding of a lot of these markings," she said. "Up until then, I thought, maybe Mozart didn't actually put everything down exactly as he would have played it himself. But when you start playing it with (a classical-era) bow, you realize very quickly that it doesn't have just one bounce point, like our modern bows -- slightly below the middle, more or less. Instead, it also bounces equally as well in the upper half -- you bounce in the upper half, you bounce down in the lower half, and you can do exactly what's on the page. It's just so springy."

Even though she uses a modern bow to play Mozart on her modern violin, "having experienced the earlier type of bow, now I do what I can to replicate some of that. Basically I can do most of Mozart's bowings, but the bow distribution is going to be different than what I would do with the real thing," she said.

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January 30, 2015 at 08:31 AM · The reason appoggiaturas are written and played the way they are in Classic music has nothing to do with the composer's requiring/marking a "certain emphasis" in expression and everything to do with harmony: they're simply non-harmonic (nonchord, "clashing") suspensions.

It's their clashing and resolution with the beat's chord that brings emphasis to phrasing. Let's put the ox and cart in their proper order - after all, Mozart, Haydn, and countless others knew their harmony well, unlike many of today's musicians.

Too many musicians don't understand this and easily treat/discard it as a rhythmic idiosyncrasy of musical orthography of the Classic period, which they most certainly are not!

January 30, 2015 at 09:35 AM · Andrew - yes, exactly, like what we would call a "blue" note. The emphasis is needed to bring out the expressive clash.

January 30, 2015 at 03:27 PM · I think the point is that they are less likely to understand the concept of the appoggiatura, harmonically or practically, when written out as eighth notes instead of a principal note and decoration. :)

January 30, 2015 at 06:14 PM · On another note, I finally got a copy of The Rachel Barton Pine Collection, and I have been reading through the Mozart cadenzas. One of my students is about to do Mozart 4, and I very much like the idea of trying some new cadenzas, particularly, cadenzas written by a woman, one who is alive today! And with this recording, it makes that more do-able for a student (and teacher, frankly), who will be able to listen to the cadenzas played by the person who wrote them!

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Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine