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Pauline Lerner

Less Is More: Part II. Andras Schiff Plays Mozart

October 29, 2006 at 7:43 AM

(Continued from 10/23/06)

Last weekend I heard two great concerts, Emmylou Harris singing all kinds of things and Andras Schiff playing and conducting Mozart. These two very different musicians had something in common in their styles: less is more.

Andras Schiff is one of my favorite pianists. I have several CDs of him playing Bach, and some of them never get put away with my other CDs. I leave them out by my stereo in case I need a quick fix. I don’t have to stop and think about what I want to listen to. They’re always just right for the moment. I’ve heard him live in concert several times, most recently, last weekend.

Schiff played and conducted an all-Mozart program with the Capella Andrea Barca, a group he formed to play the complete catalog of Mozart’s piano concertos. He played Piano Concertos #9 and #27, and I especially liked #9. It was a groundbreaking composition for its day because the sound of the piano (keyboard) was not enmeshed in the orchestra’s sound. Piano and orchestra were equals. It is still striking in this way today. At the very start, the orchestra played a one measure figure and the piano jumped in to finish the phrase. The piano sounded like it was asserting itself there, and it continued in the same way throughout the orchestra-soloist dialog. The effect was bracing and dramatic. The orchestra was small by today’s standard, and the music seemed less cluttered than more modern music. Yet there was so much going on! It was quite intense, compact, and essential. It held me enthralled from beginning to end.

Schiff also conducted Mozart’s Symphony #40 in g minor, one of my favorite pieces of music since childhood. This symphony has given me strong connections with other people – my mother, my ex-boyfriend, and my community symphony orchestra. (From the sublime to the ridiculous: I once had one of the themes from this piece as a ringtone on my cell phone.) After hearing this performance, I have a better understanding of why I’ve always loved this music so much. It is unusual for Mozart, in part because it is “Big Mozart,” with a larger orchestra and larger sound than most of his other symphonies. It is never “big” in the sense of “heavy” or “ponderous.” Everything that’s there really needs to be there. There is nothing superfluous, nothing that can be cut. It is unusual for Mozart in another way. It was written towards the end of his tragically short life and foreshadows the Romantic era. Mozart never wrote with the angst of Beethoven, but this symphony has its dark moments, anxious feelings, and marked tension, as well as sweet and bright feelings. The mood changes often and keeps the listener hanging on. Somehow, though, there is the certainty that everything will turn out well in the end. After all, this is Mozart.

Mozart’s music often has a child-like quality, a reassuring feeling that things are as they ought to be. This is true in spite of all the atrocities and hatred that were going on in Mozart’s time, just as in our own time. Mozart’s music brings us to a place deep within us where there is calmness, release, and strength. I feel blessed every time I listen to Mozart.

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