One of the best things about contemporary technology is its ability to offer new ways of exploring well-trodden paths. In an earlier age, The Mozart Project, a new interactive e-book created by two non-musicians, James Fairclough and Harry Farnham, would probably come in several volumes (given its wide-ranging and comprehensive text), with innumerable footnotes, endnotes, bibliography, further reading, further listening and so forth. With the weighty tomes at one’s side, one would then have to rummage through one’s CD or LP collection to listen to the music referenced in the book. By this point, one might have tired of having to do so much additional work to experience some of Mozart’s juvenilia or a late opera.

Not so in the e-book format, for all your need to discover the world of Mozart, the man and his music, the world he inhabited and his lasting influence and perennial popularity is contained within this continuous and generously-illustrated format. Nor is this some “how cool would it be to do an e-book about Mozart?”, dreamt up by a couple of computer geeks in their bedroom over a few beers on a Sunday afternoon. Two years in the making, The Mozart Project contains a wealth of authoritative and carefully-researched material, with chapters written by distinguished academic authorities and Mozart scholars such as as Cliff Eisen, John Irving, Neal Zaslaw and Nicholas Till. Alongside this are contributions from leading figures in the world of music and opera/theatre – Sir Thomas Allen, Dame Felicity Lott, Elizabeth Wallfisch, Sir Nicholas Hytner, Sir Jonathan Miller, Simon Russell Beale and members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, together with round table discussions with the authors led by music journalist Paul Morley. Many of these contributors offer personal insights into the music of Mozart, and provide crucial information on aspects such as interpretation, performance practice and Mozart instrumentation. The creators received funding from composer George Fenton, who is on a mission to bring a more diverse audience into the world’s greatest concert venues, and who felt that James and Harry could bring a huge amount of passion to the project.

This is more than confirmed in the final product. Its creators are not classical-music heads and I think this lends a really wide-eyed and genuine spirit of discovery and excitement to the material. There is no “dumbing down” here to appeal to the masses or those who felt Milos Forman’s film Amadeus presented a “true” portrait of Mozart as a farting fop in a pink powdered wig. The text is underpinned by scholarship, the “talking heads” and musical extracts are high-quality and professionally produced, the further reading is comprehensive (without being burdensome). Yet the material is presented in an attractive and accessible design, easy to use and never overly complex nor didactic. The text is regularly sprinkled with music extracts and spoken word, in mp3 and video format, and extra interesting titbits can be found by clicking on pictures, maps, and timelines. The book also provides exclusive access to the Mozart Autograph Vault in Salzburg and explores areas of controversy and intrigue: for example, does Pushkin’s diary confirm speculation over the Salieri poisoning?

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The book is arranged over 10 chapters, covering topics such as The Grand Tour (an experience which had a significant impact on Mozart), the Europe of Mozart, Symphonies, Concertos, Operas and a final chapter, appropriately, on the Requiem. There is also a whole chapter devoted to the ongoing fascination with the child prodigy, with contributions from contemporary prodigy, eight-year-old Alma Deutscher. And the book is truly interactive: readers can put questions to the authors online, and material within the book will be regularly updated. This stylish, imaginative and engaging book will appeal to music lovers, musicians and Mozart scholars alike, and at just £9.99 it represents excellent value for such a comprehensive and fascinating study of the genius of Mozart.

The Mozart Project can be purchased from the Apple iBooks store.

Meet the Artist interview with John Irving

Follow The Mozart Project on Twitter @themozartproj

 

When I was learning the piano as a child, it wasn’t obvious to me why my teacher insisted that I learnt certain repertoire, for example, by Bach, Beethoven or Chopin (my Grade 8 programme featured works by all three). Unfortunately, I wasn’t taught technique as a specific area of piano study, and my teacher never really explained why certain composers and works were useful for both technical and artistic development. Meanwhile, my grounding in music history, styles and genres came from O- and A-level music, going to concerts and opera with my family, and listening to music at home.

Now, as I survey the vast repertoire available to the pianist (far bigger than for any other instrumentalist), I realise that there is much to be gained from studying works by specific composers, for they can each teach us something special which informs the way we approach, interpret and play music.

So, what exactly can the great composers teach us? I have tried to highlight one or two key areas for each composer (these are my own suggestions, based on my experience of their repertoire):

Bach – “counterpoint”

  • how to approach separate voices and textures within a work. Useful not just for playing Baroque repertoire, but for any music where one is required to highlight different voices and layers of sound.

Mozart – “clarity”, “elegance”

  • to play Mozart well, one needs precise articulation, finger independence, control, and lightness
  • an ability to utilise the full range of dynamics and phrasing, with minimal/sensitive use of pedal

Beethoven – “strength”, “structure”

  • an understanding of the building blocks and architecture of music, and the ability to highlight this
  • strength, projection, scrupulous attention to rhythm

Schubert – “melody”, “emotion”

  • Beautifully shaped melodies, rapid shifts in emotion, musical chiaroscuro
  • the ability to move seamlessly between many emotions, from joy to despair, sometimes within the space of a handful of bars, or even a single bar

Chopin – “sensitivity”, “songlines”

  • ultra-smooth legato, controlled shading, dynamics, voicing, pedalling
  • an understanding of the essential melodic line

Liszt – “virtuosity”

  • Play Liszt and you learn how to be a real performer, with the confidence, communication skills and strength to tackle the big warhorses of the repertoire (Russian concertos, Etudes etc) with true bravura
  • Fantastic technical grounding: double-octaves, chunky chords, projection, physical stamina, legatissimo and leggiero playing

Debussy – “colour”, “control”, “detail”

  • Debussy often asks the pianist to forget how the piano works and instead demands touch-sensitive control, subtle shadings, fine articulation, absolute rhythmic accuracy and superb attention to detail. Observe each and every marking in Debussy’s score – they are there for a reason!

Twentieth-century composers – “percussion”, “rhythm”, “articulation”, “colour”

  • Bartok offers even the most junior pianist the chance to learn about percussion and rhythmic vitality, while Prokofiev combines these elements with references back to classical antecedents
  • Messiaen for rhythm, brilliance, emotion, meditation
Maurice Sand, ‘Chopin giving a piano lesson to Pauline Viardot’, drawing (1844)

I ran an informal poll amongst my Twitter and Facebook friends, asking them to indicate which pieces they feel should be “must plays” in the pianist’s repertoire. This post is compilation of those thoughts. Thank you to everyone who contributed. Please feel free to leave further comments, either via the comments box on this blog or via Twitter @crosseyedpiano.

J S Bach – The Well-Tempered Clavier, Italian Concertos, Partitas

The general consensus is that Bach “teaches you everything” (Melanie) and is “the basis of all piano knowledge” (Lorraine) – phrasing, voicing, balance, techniques such as jeu perlé and legato, “orchestration”. Master Bach and you can play anything. Bach was revered by many composers who followed him, perhaps most notably, Fryderyk Chopin, who, it is said, studied the ’48’ every day (he took a copy of the manuscript with him on his ill-starred trip to Majorca).

Mozart

I’m revisiting Mozart’s late Rondo in A minor, K511, at the moment, and I am struck, not for the first time, by how Mozart’s piano music presents his oeuvre in microcosm: operatic, orchestral, choral – it’s all there. He is also a master of chiaroscuro (light and shade), with changes of mood and shading often occurring within the space of just a bar or two. Mozart’s piano music requires great clarity and elegance. Never forget Schnabel’s comment “too easy for children, too difficult for artists”.

Beethoven – Piano Sonatas

Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas are considered to be the New Testament of piano repertoire (Bach’s WTC is the Old Testament). Learn any one of the sonatas and you’ll have a snapshot of Beethoven’s creative impulse, as well as insights into how rapidly the instrument was developing at the time. Beethoven pushed the boundaries, both of the form and the instrument for which he was writing. For all the clichéd readings of it, the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata (Opus 27/2) remains a revolutionary work, written by a composer poised on the cusp of change. His music is full of wit, humour, pathos & philosophy.

Chopin – Études, Nocturnes

I suppose it goes without saying that any pianist worth his or her salt should study at least one of Chopin’s Études and Nocturnes at some point. Chopin elevated the Étude from student study to a highly refined genre, while retaining the original intention of the ‘study’. They are all different, and individual, and they all offer opportunities to hone specific techniques. Some are very well known (the ‘Winter Wind’, ‘Butterfly’, ‘Aeolian Harp’, ‘Tristesse’, ‘Revolutionary’) which makes them doubly difficult to play, for one wants to do one’s absolute best by them. Learn a handful of the Études – or all of them – and you will be scaling the high Himalayan peaks of piano repertoire.

The Nocturnes are exquisite miniatures, some of the finest small-scale music written for piano, and studies in beautiful cantabile playing. The distinct ‘vocal line’ in these pieces lends great drama and profound emotional expression, together with the judicious use of tempo rubato. Many have decorative features such as trills and fiorituras, which, when played well, appear to float over the surface of the music. The influence of Mozart on Chopin is clear in these works, in their distinct melodic lines. For me, the best performances of Chopin’s Nocturnes reveal him as a classical composer, with understated rubato, and close attention to structure and notation. Chopin may be ‘Prince of the Romantics’ (Count Adam Zamoyski), but he revered Bach and Mozart.

On a more general level, playing Chopin’s music offers the modern pianist a fascinating insight into what kind of instrument the piano was in the first part of the nineteenth century. More advanced than Beethoven’s piano, it was still some way from the modern instrument we know today. Hearing his music played on a period instrument is fascinating and makes sense of his dynamic markings such as sostenuto, and his pedal writing. (The Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands, Surrey, has three ‘Chopin’ pianos, which he may have played during his 1848 visit to England.)

Rachmaninov

The landscape artist in sound, Rachmaninov presents the vastness of his native Russia in his music, and a sense of history. A reluctant performer himself (in a photo in the green room at Wigmore Hall he looks as if he’d do anything but play the piano!), he wrote piano music which is difficult yet so beautifully constructed that it is extremely satisfying to play.

Debussy

Debussy forces you, as a pianist, to totally reappraise the way you play, and how the instrument works. In a lot of his piano music, you need to forget the piano has hammers. Debussy’s own piano playing was described as “hands sinking into velvet”. I learnt so much about arm weight, lightness, and touch from my study of Debussy for my Diploma, so much so that I feel he is now required playing for any pianist, whatever level. (Even simplified versions of Debussy’s greatest piano works are worth investigation.) Debussy’s piano music also presents some interesting paradoxes for the modern pianist: we have this idea that his music is fluid and gentle. It was, relative to the prevailing style, but we have now gone too far now, and many interpretations capitalise, sometimes erroneously, on the “impressionistic” nature of his music. The Preludes, for example, contain many different moods. shadings, and exercises in touch and tone. Definitely worth studying.

Bartok, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Messiaen, Stockhausen, Ligeti

I’m a recent convert to atonal music. I actually sat through a piece by Stockhausen in a concert earlier this week and enjoyed it, and I learnt a piece by Messiaen for my Diploma. It’s good to play outside your comfort zone, not least because it introduces you to new and different repertoire (I feel the same about Scarlatti and his cohorts!). Interestingly, younger students are often very receptive to dissonant and atonal music, because they have not yet experienced enough ‘straight’ classical music. I have also found some of my students like minimalist music, for the same reason.

This is by no means comprehensive, and is also very subjective. There are many, many more pieces and composers which could be considered “required reading” for pianists. Do please feel free to leave comments and keep the discussion going.

Robert Levin in action (Photo credit Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office)

Anyone expecting a ‘traditional’ concert experience at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Tuesday night would have been disappointed – or maybe pleasantly surprised. Consistently innovative, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) are offering a new music concept in the form of The Works, in which you can learn more about a Great Classical Masterpiece in a fun and informal way in the company of the orchestra and an ‘expert’. Future events include harpsichordist Laurence Cummings on Bach, but for the first event of this new series, the OAE were joined by charismatic pianist and renowned Mozart specialist Robert Levin.

Levin, who has a passionate and forensic interest in the minutiae of Mozart’s music and his creative life and compositional processes, is a lively and engaging speaker. While not everyone may like his particular brand of New York Jewish ebullience nor necessarily agree with his “scholarship”, there is no doubting his infectious enthusiasm for his subject. He has studied Mozart’s manuscripts in microscopic detail to winkle out all the details of his creative process and to attempt to understand his precise vocabulary of rhythm, melody, counterpoint, harmony, architecture. As Levin says, “Mozart hides sophistication behind apparent simplicity” (thus, calling to mind Schnabel’s famous quote about Mozart’s music). His detailed study of Mozart informs both his teaching and his playing.

A few years ago, I attended a study day with him entitled ‘Mozart and the Piano’ in which he examined the evidence to suggest that Mozart was not only intimate with all the quirks and foibles, strengths and weaknesses of the musicians with whom he worked (a bassoon part written for a player with loose teeth, for example) but also with the capabilities – and limitations – of the instruments at his disposal. It was a fascinating and entertaining angle on Mozart’s music.

“If Mozart had had access to a modern Steinway, just think what he would have written!” Levin declared provocatively at the start of The Works. Of course, as Levin immediately countered, we cannot make such assumptions: Mozart worked with what was available at the time – the harpsichord, fortepiano and fledgling piano. What we can do, however, is look at the documentary evidence – the drafts, the autographed scores, his letters – to gain a glimpse into the compositional world of Mozart.

Levin has argued, convincingly, that the paper, ink and quill that Mozart used all point to a prolific genius who could turn his hand to almost anything, a consummate multi-tasker who would sketch out a draft of a piano concerto and then set it aside to work on more lucrative projects.

He also feels Mozart was the “Duke Ellington” of the 18th century, endlessly improvising off the cuff, and knocking off dazzling cadenzas at the drop of a hat. He didn’t need to write them down because each time he performed he would do something new.

Levin is also an improviser, and his intimate study of Mozart allows him to offer suggestions as to how Mozart may have performed (directing from the piano, of course) which sound fresh and natural, but never ersatz. Sometimes there is an astonishing latitude in Levin’s interpretations, but at no point have I ever felt, when hearing Levin perform, that he is taking unfounded liberties with the material. Rather, there is a sense of someone who is thoroughly immersed in the ‘language’ of Mozart, but who does not hold up what is written in the score as “sacred”. A degree of danger and unexpectedness is what makes Levin’s playing so intriguing, and he believes he has a responsibility to create something “new” in each performance he gives.

I am no purist about historically accurate performance on historically accurate instruments: I feel it is impossible for us to truly recreate the sound, feel, nuance, atmosphere of Mozart’s music in his time – and certain attempts to do this can come across as either overly esoteric, or an undignified ‘Disneyfication’ of the music. Robert Levin’s approach offers some interesting and thought-provoking angles on the subject: in his hands, Mozart’s idiosyncrasies become a wonderful asset and serve as a pretext for a better understanding of the man and his music, as well as reviving the art of improvisation in classical music and promoting novelty in musical performance.

Robert Levin talking about how differently things would have been done in Mozart’s day.

Robert Levin on improvisation in the Piano Concerto No. 23 from the OAE blog, and on Radio 4’s Today programme.

Say “Glenn Gould”, and most people will reply “Bach”. Horowitz? Liszt. Schnabel? Beethoven. Lipatti? Chopin. Many great pianists (and even some lesser ones!) have become associated with one particular composer, and this “composer connection” still prevails today: Mitsuko Uchida and Maria Joao Pires are noted for their interpretations of Mozart, Evgeny Kissin for Chopin, Alfred Brendel for the great Austro-German triumvirate of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert (though there are far better interpreters of these composers’ music than Brendel!).

So, why is it that certain pianists become so closely associated with a particular composer, or group of composers? A definitive recording, a well-received concert tour, the praise of respected critics, all these factors contribute. Some pianists choose to devote their life to playing and recording the entire Chopin Etudes and Preludes, or the complete Beethoven piano sonatas (Brendel – three times, Barenboim – twice), while others prefer to play more wide-ranging repertoire. The great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter seemed able to turn his hand to anything, from Bach to Britten, Handel to Hindemith (he claimed he had enough repertoire for “around eighty programmes”). Claudio Arrau is another noted all-rounder, along with Maurizio Pollini, who is also a champion of the sort of late twentieth-century repertoire many modern pianists of a similar stature won’t touch  (‘The Pollini Project’, his personal survey of piano music from Bach to Boulez, draws to a close next Tuesday).

But is it also perhaps that some pianists choose to immerse themselves in one particular composer, or composers, because the music reveals something about their own personality? We talk of so-and-so having an “affinity” for, say, Bach, or Debussy. The word “affinity” originates from the Middle English affinite and the Latin affinitas which is defined as “connection by marriage”. This suggests an even more intimate connection between musician and composer, and perhaps it is that very intimacy which enables some interpreters to really get to the heart, and soul, of the music?

This sounds fanciful: of course, musicians pick up repertoire because they like it, not because they want to marry it! Why learn something you dislike, or because you feel you should? Even at the most junior level, with my students, I would never force them to learn music they do not like: it is wholly unproductive. I have clear memories from my childhood piano lessons of being confronted with the same dreary page of score week after week, my piano teacher insistent that I learn the damn thing. As a teenager, and, admittedly, a rather tiresome, smug, academic teenager, I claimed to love the music of Bach. I’d only scratched the surface of his oeuvre, but there was something about the tight construction of his music that appealed to my intellect. And still does. While at 16, learning a Chopin Nocturne (Op 37, no. 1) for Grade 8, I loathed what I considered its overblown sentiment. Now, I can’t get enough of Chopin, and studying and learning his music is an enormous, if difficult, pleasure (and, no, I don’t consider his music to be full of overblown sentiment any more!). Liszt has been another revelation – a composer I refused to touch until this year, for the same reason as my dislike of Chopin my teens. Again, I was wrong. Meanwhile, much as I love his music, Mozart remains a tricky option, the words of Schnabel never far from my mind “too easy for children and too difficult for artists”, and I’m not convinced I have the mindset for Mozart.

One of my adult students, a rather stiff, anxious woman, had a breakthrough recently learning Bartok (the Quasi Adagio from For Children, which is part of the ABRSM Grade 1 syllabus this year). While other students have struggled with the simple yet highly emotional nature of this piece, this lady has reveled in it, creating the right nuances and shadings, despite her inexperience, and bringing a plaintive poignancy to the tiny piece. So then we looked at ‘Kummer’ (‘Grief’) by Alexander Gedike (ABRSM Grade 1 2009-10 syllabus), and the same wonderful thing happened. She admitted that the sorrowful, minor-key nature of these pieces suited her personality, and it’s true that she plays both extremely well. So, maybe this is an example of the music “fitting” the personality of the performer?

Performers need to balance their own personality with the expression of the composer’s ego: there is, for me, nothing worse than going to a performance where it is all about the performer (Lang Lang, Fazil Say). It just gets in the way of the music and is, in my opinion, hugely egocentric. The best performances are those where the performer stands back from the music a little, with a “passionate detachment”, a little deferential, thus allowing the music (and its composer) to speak for itself. As conductor Mark Wrigglesworth says in his article which, in part, inspired this post, “the best results are of course when the personalities of both the piece and its performer lie in perfect harmony”. The one notable exception to this is perhaps Glenn Gould, whose personality is, in many ways, all over the music in his muttering and humming. Some people can’t bear this, but to me it’s a sign of Gould’s total engagement with the music, and his enjoyment of it too.

Richter playing the opening movement of his favourite Schubert sonata (G major, D894).

Glenn Gould – French Suite No. 2 in C minor, BWV 813/I. Allemande

Bartók : For Children – Quasi Adagio