If you think that the music of Mozart‹an obvious cornerstone of the classical repertoire‹doesn't need extra reasons to be performed, you'd be wrong: Lincoln Center's Great Performers presents Master of the Enlightenment‹Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, several concerts' worth of the sublime works of the Salzburg-born master in commemoration of the 250th anniversary of his birth.
The four Master of the Enlightenment concerts concentrate on Mozart's orchestral and choral compositions. Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, the period-instrument ensemble led by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, which has not played in New York for several seasons, returns to open the series with two enticing concerts: the Monteverdi Choir joins the orchestra January 22 at Avery Fisher Hall for a performance of the great C-minor Mass and the final, unfinished Requiem; and January 23 at Alice Tully Hall finds Sir John and the orchestra collaborating on a program of Mozart's final three symphonies: No. 39 in E-flat major, No. 40 in G minor, and No. 41 in C major, the famous "Jupiter."
Symphony No. 40 then makes a return appearance March 15 at Avery Fisher, performed by the Polish Chamber Orchestra under flutist Sir James Galway's baton. Sir James also leads the orchestra in the D-major flute concerto with his wife, Lady Jeanne Galway, as soloist.
On February 26 in Alice Tully Hall, pianist Stephen Hough will perform the composer's Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-flat major, accompanied by the conductorless ensemble I Musici from Rome. The ensemble replaces the Mozarteum Orchestra of Salzburg's originally scheduled appearance with Hough, which had to be cancelled due to a loss of government subsidy.
Pianist Hough is well-known for his entrancing Mozart interpretations and he has no doubts about why the master's music remains vital even into the 21st century. "Anyone can see that he has written amazing tunes, and there's always an incredible sense of structure to his music," Hough explains. "You never feel that there's something out of balance: it's always fresh, always beautifully crafted."
That said, Hough refines his definition of Mozartean elegance and musical mastery. "With Mozart, you always go further: the next stage is his humanity, and his comprehensive understanding of the human condition in his music," he notes. "There's often the sense of not knowing if the music you are hearing or playing is happy or sad: even if it's in the major key, it might not be cheering you up as you listen.
"So Mozart's ability to go between the cracks to find those things that make all of us human is what we always recognize in great art. For example, those late Rembrandt self-portraits that we love so much are not so obviously tragic, but underneath there is an awareness of the fragility of humanity. This amazing ability to be an all-around conveyor of what it means to be human is what makes Mozart such a special composer."
As a pianist, Hough feels a special affinity for Mozart's keyboard music. "He didn't write a bar that was unpianistic," Hough marvels. "It's funny that the quality of the piano sonatas is far less than that of the concertos: there's a theory that maybe the sonatas were written as simple teaching pieces, whereas the concertos are much more public in their presentation and therefore in their virtuosity."
That includes the concerto that Hough is playing February 26. "To be honest, the E-flat major concerto is not one of his all-time masterpieces," Hough concedes, "but it's among his second-best, which is better than nearly everyone else's best. This concerto was one of the first he wrote after a long time without writing any piano concertos, and it led the way to the towering masterworks that followed: Nos. 20, 21, and 22."
The E-flat major concerto has several uniquely Mozartean touches. "There's something very touching about this piece: it's extraordinarily lyrical and elegant," Hough says. "The slow movement is one of Mozart's greatest ones, it's so beautiful to play and hear."
For the performance with the I Musici ensemble, Piano Concerto No. 14 will be heard with just string accompaniment: a dozen players will be onstage along with Hough. "I'm looking forward to doing it like that, since it's almost like we are going back to the way it was played in Mozart's time," the pianist says. "Since the ensemble doesn't have a conductor, it's a different dynamic while playing. Most Mozart concertos work quite well in performance without a conductor, so it shouldn't be that unusual. And with an ensemble like I Musici, it can become much more than a standard collaboration: in fact, it should be a really quite wonderful experience."
Hough summarizes Mozart's continuing pre-eminence among other composers who came before and after him. "What's astonishing about Mozart, especially his piano concertos, is that so many of them were so….well, amazing‹his music just poured out, unlike Beethoven, who sweated blood while he wrote," says Hough. "And there isn't one 20th-century composer you can name who wrote so many masterpieces in his lifetime: if you list a dozen true masterworks from one composer, you'd be doing pretty well.
"So to say that nine or ten of the 27 Mozart piano concertos are among the greatest ever written is a fact that is staggering to all of us, musicians and composers alike. That's another reason why we're celebrating his anniversary the way we wouldn't do with other composers."
Kevin Filipski is a frequent contributor to Playbill.