According to pianist Alfred Brendel‹for whom Mozart has long been both a vast influence and a continued revelation‹the music of the master from Salzburg always sounds nothing short of miraculous.
"There is a saying by composer Ferruccio Busoni that goes, 'Mozart gives you both the riddle and the solution,'" Brendel says. "What this means is that Mozart's music has both the freshness of youth and the wisdom that comes with age. He is simply one of the greatest geniuses of all time in both music and musical theater: his three da Ponte operas [Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosí fan tutte] are the Shakespeare among all operas."
January 27 marks the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth and, along with the rest of the music world, Carnegie Hall is going all out to celebrate this milestone with performances by Brendel himself, who joins Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker for a concert on Mozart's birthday. On the program for this festive gala concert are Mozart's Concerto in B-flat Major (No. 27), the B-flat major Serenade for 13 Winds, and the Symphony No. 38 ("Prague").
Brendel sees consistent invention and enchanting elegance throughout the music Mozart composed in his brief 35 years on earth; this includes, of course, the Piano Concerto No. 27, which was written within a year of the composer's death. "The last concerto does have a little bit of a valedictory air to it, but I don't want to imply that he knew that he was dying when he wrote it," Brendel explains. "Yet, in The Magic Flute and in some of the late instrumental works, there is a particular simplicity that is deceptively simple: it is really a simplicity that contains a great deal of sophistication."
As for the 27 piano concertos themselves, this veteran of these sublime keyboard works simply states: "They are the absolute peak of the concerto repertory."
When Brendel returns to Carnegie Hall the following month for his solo recital, he will be playing some wondrous piano music that usually gets short shrift, at least when compared with other Mozart works: solo piano works that have never been played as frequently or have been considered as sublime as the concertos. Says Brendel, "As Arthur Schnabel once said, '[The solo piano pieces] are too simple for children and too difficult for artists.' "
Playing these weighty works‹the C-minor Fantasia and the A-minor Rondo‹side by side with equally big works by Schubert and Haydn is nothing new for Brendel, and he's intensely devoted to bringing them across in the right way.
"There are relatively few notes to play in the Mozart solo works, and each note must be in the exact emotional and intellectual place," Brendel explains. "That is a very tall order. But I want to play some of these piano pieces now before it is too late for me, because you need to have the utmost control when performing them."
Brendel believes that the composer's exalted status as a musical genius is fully deserved. "You simply cannot overestimate Mozart," Brendel says. "He and his music have a kind of perfection: a formal perfection that surprises you with what's expected. That is very unusual in music: Haydn, for example, surprises you with what's unexpected, but Mozart manages to surprise us with the expected. It's a kind of magic."
Kevin Filipski is a frequent contributor to Playbill.
A selection of Mozart CDs are now available in the Shop at Carnegie Hall: Robert Levin performs piano concertos nos. 5, 14, and 16; Hilary Hahn joins Natalie Zhu in a recording of sonatas for violin and piano; and the Orchestra of St. Luke's, conducted by Donald Runnicles, explores the sublime Requiem. All CDs are priced at $20 (including sales tax). Take home a piece of music history today!