Mozart first played Mozart. He premiered his 20th piano concerto in Vienna in 1785. The "466," as Orli Shaham refers to the "K" number of the work in musician shorthand, is one of only two that Mozart wrote in the minor key. It's not as though the composer "shied away" from the minor, says Shaham: his Requiem and Don Giovanni, two highly notable examples, are written in minor keys: "rather," she extrapolates, "he used it when he really meant it." Indeed, there are darker tones, more shadows, more angular shapes in "466" than in the previous piano concertos of the bright young genius: a more profound weight, less of the high-spirited dazzle of the showy prodigy.
The "466" is imbued with a richer beauty, and it is that beauty which first captivated Shaham. "This piece is reason No. 1 as to why I became a pianist," she says. "I remember when I was very young, my brother Shai was playing it, and I thought it was so beautiful that I had to play it, too. What captivated me when I was four or five? It's just relentlessly beautiful. Even at that age I must have had some sense of that.
"The '466' is the first concerto I played with an orchestra, when I was 11. I remember my teacher telling me 'When the orchestra starts, you'll know.' I wondered what he was talking about, then the orchestra started, and I knew: This is what I'd be doing for the rest of my life."
Shaham returns to Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20, K. 466, with conductor Vassily Sinaisky and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, at Powell Hall at the end of this month. "Although it's been a part of my repertoire for many, many years," she says, "it's been a couple of years since I've done it. I'm very excited about rediscovering it."
The "466" has held many musicians in its thrall: Brahms and Clara Schumann are two notable examples. Beethoven kept the concerto as part of his solo repertoire for many years. Shaham plays Beethoven's cadenza in the first movement of the work. "Although it has Beethoven's personality" she says, "it finds Mozart's voice. It's an expansion of the character of the piece. Early Beethoven is very much like the Mozart of '466.' He understood what Mozart was saying and how he was saying it."
Yet before Shaham reaches that Beethoven infusion into the core of Mozart, she must begin with silence. The first movement opens without the soloist: the tutti, this is called: with Shaham waiting at the keyboard for many measures before she enters the orchestral tumult. What goes through a soloist's mind during that time?
"Panic," Shaham replies. "For any performing artist the opening tutti is the worst time during the whole piece." She offers a sports analogy: "Think of athletes: You watch Michael Phelps, for example, and all the things he does to gear up: he's got his iPod, etc.: then he's off. But a pianist has to wait three minutes on stage before the start."
Something Michael Phelps does not have to contend with is the sheer beauty of Mozart's art before he dives into the water. "Listening to the orchestra," Shaham admits, "sometimes you're so enthralled you can get lost at the very beginning."
And once she is fully into the concerto, does Mozart pose particular technical demands on the soloist? "Yes and no," says Shaham. "It has a few finger-twisters, but at the same time the main technical challenge is what you get in Mozart: The music is absolutely naked. It's very emotional, teeming with pathos, but you can't allow that to affect your control of the keyboard. You cannot let yourself get swept away with the sound. It's so simply and succinctly written. You're naked."
Shaham chooses a very un-Mozartian composer for comparison: "You miss a note in Rachmaninoff, it's .05 percent of all the notes you play. You miss notes in Mozart: you hear it. Each of those notes is imbued with two hundred times more meaning. It's very nerve-wracking. It's a different level of caring about each individual note. So in terms of mental technique, it's absolutely a challenge."
The second movement is one of profound lyricism, piano and orchestra surge, pulse, with the hypnotic rhythm of waves. One may be reminded of Yeats's "lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore." But from that sense of deep reflection, the music jolts forward in the final movement. The music leaps into another mood, another personality. Mozart doesn't give the soloist much time to prepare. "If you watch pianists," Shaham points out, "you will see them ready themselves for the third movement towards the end of the second.
"It's a personality change," she confides. "It takes me out of one personality and clicks a new one into position."
The final movement cadenza is Shaham's own invention, "but not really," she demures. "The opening tutti of the third movement is one of my favorite parts of the concerto, so in the cadenza I play it myself. Mozart never wrote this music for the piano, so I wrote it for the piano."
It seems an apt choice, returning to Mozart for Mozart, a perpetuation of his relentless beauty, which initiated her life's work.
Orli Shaham performs Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20, K. 466, March 26-28, 2010, at Powell Hall.
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