The sonatas of Mozart are unique; they are too easy for children, and too difficult for artists.
― Artur Schnabel

On the page the piano music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart looks simple (but never simplistic) yet for many pianists, the music’s greatest challenge lies in that simplicity. Its beauty, and profundity, is contained in a transparency of texture and expression which challenges the most technically assured and artistically insightful musicians.

As pianist Alfred Brendel says of Mozart, “everything in his music counts”. He reduces music to its most essential and it demands from the pianist a precision which easily matches the virtuosity required to play Liszt. Arpeggio passages and trills must shine with jeu perlé playing; literally “pearly playing”, a technique which creates fractional separation between rapid notes to bring a glorious opalescent sheen to the sound – easy to achieve on the lighter instruments Mozart would have known, much harder on a modern piano. His gorgeous melodic lines must sing like the most beautiful, sensual arias from his operas, accompaniments (Alberti bass lines, for example) need the balance of the best string quartet textures, while fioriture and cadenzas call for drama and spontaneity.

For many professional pianists, Mozart is regarded as the ultimate challenge. This may seem surprising, given that his piano scores contain far fewer notes than, say, those of Liszt or Ravel. But every one of those notes demands to be sounded and heard perfectly, and this requires an inordinate level of technical mastery to achieve such refinement, coupled with imagination and artistry to breathe colour and life into those deceptively simple passages. In the piano music of Schumann or Liszt, Brahms or Rachmaninoff there are thickets of notes which give one some cover; in Mozart there is nowhere to hide.

The beautifully-crafted simplicity of the notes belies unfathomable and infinite complexities, and an extraordinary breadth of expression, which easily equals that other master of musical chiaroscuro, of smiling through tears, Franz Schubert. Dismiss the image of Mozart as the giggling, farting Rococo man-child as portrayed in the play and film ‘Amadeus’; the range of emotion in Mozart’s writing is extraordinary: profound, poignant, tender, angry, joyous, witty, passionate, demonic, exuberant, his mercurial mood shifts often occurring within just a handful of bars, or even a single bar, sunshine one moment, dark clouds the next.

Mozart’s piano works should be for the player a receptacle full of latent musical possibilities which often go far beyond the purely pianistic.
– Alfred Brendel

Another challenge for the pianist is Mozart’s complete mastery of orchestration. His musical imagination was not limited by the compass and timbre of the keyboard instruments of his day, or indeed the modern piano, and his solo piano works demonstrate his entire oeuvre in microcosm, from string quartets and wind divertimenti to symphonies, and operatic arias and recitatives. There are grand orchestral tuttis, brass fanfares, articulation drawn from string writing and woodwind, and of course the singing melodies which must speak with clarity, meaning and beauty. Many of the piano sonatas have a symphonic sweep and soundworld in their opening and closing movements, while the slow movements are soprano arias with dramatic interludes. Such piano writing demands that the pianist harnesses his/her imagination to evoke these instruments and sounds within the scope of two staves and just two hands.

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Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

As I was born into a family of musicians, I literally breathed music from my early childhood. It was just natural to me, and when I grew up that natural feeling turned into a passion that has not left me.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My father was my first mentor and definitely shaped my vision of music. Later on, I had the great luck to work with very inspiring pianists, each of them leaving their mark on my musical understanding. Today I feel that the great composers I listen to have shaped my musical world the most, and are virtually always on my mind: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

To avoid distractions and focus all my efforts on my main goal: making music.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I do not like looking back so much and am always most excited about my next project rather than my last.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I learn what I feel I have to learn, and nowadays I compose my concert programmes like a gastronomical menu, avoiding excess and trying to delight with the unexpected and surprise with the well-known.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I have been blessed to play in many wonderful venues, I liked many of them very much, however it is always the audience that makes a concert experience truly special.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Whenever my excitement for the music reaches the audience, and people leave the concert noticeably happier then when they arrived, I am happy. As for anecdotes I definitely experienced a lot of funny and less funny situations, from being obliged to repair a pedal by crawling under the piano, to a member of the audience falling from his chair. Luckily it turned out it was only dehydration, and I came to meet him the next day and we shared a great laugh, making it a wonderful memory as well.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Making music an equally emotional, intellectual and spiritual experience.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Reflecting on Edwin Fischer’s quote: “Nicht ich spiele – es spielt” (I am not playing – it plays).

Jean  Muller’s second volume of Mozart Piano Sonatas is released on 29 November on the Hãnssler Classic label.

Hailed as a “major talent“ by Gramophone, Jean Muller has shown exceptional musical talent since his earliest childhood. At age seven, he assembled his first Chopin Etude and has been performing on stage ever since. Following his initial training at the Conservatoire of Luxembourg in Marie-José Hengesch’s class, he was exposed to varied pianistic schools in Brussels, Munich, Paris and Riga under the guidance of, among others, Teofils Bikis, Eugen Indjic, Evgeny Moguilevsky, Gerhard Oppitz and Michael Schäfer. Having received further advice by distinguished artists Anne Queffélec, Leon Fleisher, Janos Starker and Fou T’song to quote but a few, Jean Muller became a master craftsmen who combines “savage technical voltage” (Gramophone) with a capacity for bold and interpretive risk. He thus achieved the rare stacked-deck of every pianist’s dreamed triple-threat ability: “Everything is there: fingers, head and heart” (Jean-Claude Pennetier).

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(Artist photo: Kaupo Kikkas)