By Lawrence Toppman
A confession: I’m still digging into the deep cuts in his catalogue. I have vowed to finish them before death, assuming that’s not coming for at least another decade. But I figure that, even without listening yet to “La Betulia Liberata” (a long oratorio written by the 15-year-old WAM) or all of his dozens of concert arias, I can say five things with assurance:
1) Genius sometimes sleeps, and often knows it sleeps. One disc in the Mozart 225 “complete” edition (which, as I noted in the first blog, isn’t quite that) consists of chips from the master’s workbench: Dribs of music, none more than a few minutes long and some as short as 40 seconds, that Mozart scribbled down and cast aside. He knew what he was doing.
2) He seems to have played more instruments than almost any other composer: Violin, organ, viola (probably his special love), harpsichord, clavichord, fortepiano. He was also curious about winds, working closely with friends to understand the clarinet, horn, bassoon and flute. Thus he wrote idiomatic, wonderful music for those instruments, too.
3) There is no “right” performance. I have listened to symphonies that tingle with tension or roll grandly along, piano concertos that are crisp or sentimental. For me, there is generally one best way to perform any piece by Schubert or Mahler or Copland; I enjoy other interpretations, but there’s always one in first place. That’s less true for Mozart than any other composer.
4) You have to love him to play him well. If not, you get performances that are blandly polished (Itzhak Perlman’s violin concertos), energetic but shallow (Vladimir Horowitz’s Piano Concerto No. 23) or ploddingly dutiful (too many to list here). You may competently whip up excitement in Tchaikovsky or Brahms without giving them your heart; that doesn’t work with Mozart.
5) Familiarity has bred not contempt, as the saying goes, or even indifference, but joy. Whatever mood I’m in, Mozart has a piece to suit it. I can’t imagine anyone else I could listen to weekly for 12 months, possibly excepting The Beatles and Frank Sinatra, and still come away treasuring the chance to hear more. Mozart’s a composer meant not for a year but for a lifetime of exploration, and I hope I’ve inspired you to take that journey yourself.