In Defense of Mozart

Classic Arts Features   In Defense of Mozart
Master pianist András Schiff celebrates Mozart with the Cappella Andrea Barca.

With the Mozart 250th birthday year racing to an end, plenty of musicians are still digging up overlooked pieces, turning out new recordings, and even attempting to show how Mozart builds brainpower. The Hungarian pianist András Schiff has paid tribute in a different way: he has created his own chamber orchestra, with which he conducts and performs expressly for the purpose of championing Mozart.

The Cappella Andrea Barca — Italian for "András Schiff" — was formed in 1999 specifically for a seven-year series of the complete Mozart piano concertos, which the pianist performed at the Mozartwoche, an annual festival in Mozart's birthplace of Salzburg, Austria. The handpicked ensemble, which has since finished the cycle, arrives at Alice Tully Hall for three all-Mozart programs October 18, 19, and 22. Featured will be six of the composer's piano concertos and three of his late symphonies.

Schiff says that he prefers to conduct from the keyboard because that's how it was done in Mozart's time.

"Mozart never played with other conductors," he explains, referring to the composer's career as a concert pianist. "His concerti are fundamentally different from the Romantic warhorses of the 19th century because here the soloist and the orchestra are equal partners. There is a constant give and take among the protagonists, just like in chamber music."

But there are other reasons for creating one's own orchestra. Schiff says that many orchestras play so much Mozart that their performances can sound routine, and they don't always allow soloists to provide creative input. "Established orchestras have played this music too often," he says. "If I do something with them, I have to accept certain conditions because I'm a guest. But if we don't understand each other well or if I don't happen to like the tone of the first oboist there is nothing I can do about it."

Schiff carefully chose the members of the Cappella Andrea Barca from an international pool of soloists, chamber musicians, and members of other orchestras. Unlike most major orchestras, the Cappella doesn't perform together every week of the season, but when it does meet its members share a close rapport and strive to make each performance feel like an event. "Here I can work with my favorite musicians of my own choice," says the pianist. "We are all very fond of each other and everyone is keen to be together to play this wonderful music."

Many of the musicians in the Cappella Andrea Barca first met Schiff in the 1980s; they were members of the Camerata Academica Salzburg, and he was appearing with the chamber orchestra as a soloist. Together with the conductor Sándor Végh, Schiff made a series of recordings of Mozart's piano concertos for the Decca label that became a cornerstone of his recorded repertoire. Decca also hired Schiff to record the label's first complete set of Mozart's piano sonatas and much of the composer's chamber music. Schiff has since undertaken major recording projects around the music of Beethoven and J. S. Bach as well.

Like his recordings, Schiff's concert programs frequently bring together different concertos to show historical and stylistic connections. The three October concerts will allow audiences to trace the considerable evolution in Mozart's musical language, starting on October 18 with the Concerto No. 22 in E-flat major, K. 482, and the Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488, which will be paired with the Symphony No. 36 in C major ("Linz").

The following night come three works all in the key of C: the Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491; the Symphony No. 41 in C major ("Jupiter"); and the Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K. 503. "Within these works we can hear whole different worlds, and the tonality is never to be taken for granted," notes Schiff. "With other composers of the time — Haydn excluded — C major sounds ordinary, with Mozart never."

The series will end on October 22 with a curveball: Instead of continuing the chronological sequence with the Piano Concerto No. 26 in D major K. 537 ("Coronation"), Schiff has substituted an earlier work, the Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat major, K. 271 ("Jeunehomme").

"I have to admit that this is my least favorite of all," he says of the omitted concerto. "I never understood its popularity, maybe because of its nickname, 'Coronation.' It's more like a fragment and the keyboard part is largely unfinished." On the other hand, the pianist believes that K. 271 "is a unique work, never to be repeated or surpassed." The program also features the popular Symphony No. 40 in G minor and the Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major, K. 595, a moody, autumnal work.

"K. 595 is unique in a different way," Schiff says. "Even if we didn't know that this is the last concerto, there is an infinite sadness about it — resignation, farewell."

Earlier this year, Schiff made an impassioned defense of the composer in a widely discussed column for London's Guardian newspaper. In the article he described how Mozart was not the wild eccentric of popular imagination but a fastidious artist who took great care in revising his scores. Schiff argued that Mozart's works were ahead of their time, especially the Rondo in A minor, K. 511, which "sounds like a forerunner of Chopin." He also criticized stage directors who update Mozart's operas with modern, avant-garde productions and attempt to express present-day social and political ideas "that are totally alien to the works in question."

The Guardian article, Schiff says, was a response to critics who feel that Mozart has been overexposed and requires publicity stunts in order to stay fresh. One of them, British cultural critic Norman Lebrecht, wrote a savage denunciation of Mozart last December in the London Evening Standard, calling him "the superstore wallpaper of classical music, the composer who pleases most and offends least."

"There have been quite a lot of articles in the English-speaking press that spoke about Mozart in such insulting terms. I felt I had to react to them," says Schiff. "Mozart doesn't need to be defended. But today, in the name of freedom of speech, some people enjoy indulging in iconoclasm. This infuriates me and I will always protest even if it isn't politically correct to do so."

Schiff adds, "The response to my article was — like to my music making — mixed. Some love it and some hate it. My aim is not to please everybody. I wrote honestly, as a matter of principle about a subject that I care about."

Brian Wise is a producer at WNYC Radio and writes about music for The New York Times, Time Out New York, and other publications.

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