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Leif Ove Andsnes: Mozart Momentum 1785/1786

Leif Ove Andsnes talks to Piano Magazine about Mozart Momentum — a performing and recording project with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, on Sony Classical.
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Leif Ove Andsnes Mozart

The first part of this project will see the light on the 28th of May, presenting a lot of core piano repertoire, including Piano Concertos Nos. 20, 21, and 22 and the Fantasia in C Minor written in 1785. Is it rare to present something so often played in such an authentic way? How did this project idea emerge?

This project came out of the Beethoven Journey, for which I partnered with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra between 2012 and 2015. When it was over, we immediately knew that we wanted to do more together, and I thought that Mozart would be ideal because the music lends itself so perfectly to this kind of leading soloist’s role, where I can play and conduct at the same time. Mozart wrote 27 piano concertos, and I started to think about how I could bring a project into focus. I’ve grown very fond of projects where you pick a moment in time — a year or certain events — and see what happened just there and then. It’s often hard for us to imagine Mozart’s life, especially when it’s so far back in time, and so focusing in on a specific period allows you to understand it better.

We picked the years 1785 and 1786 when Mozart was at the height of his success as a freelancer in Vienna. The previous year had been incredibly successful for him. Mozart wrote six Piano Concertos in 1784 and was obviously in a real flow. In the two years that followed, he wrote a further six concertos — of which we perform 5 — and they are all fantastic pieces where you can sense the incredible development he was making at that time. You can imagine another composer taking 30 years to develop in the same way, so it really is incredible to realize that Mozart produced such a volume of important works in such a short time.

Particularly remarkable is the D Minor Concerto, which he wrote at the beginning of 1785; here, he introduces new tools, the main one being that he sets the concerto in a minor key. The music is restless and dramatic in the opening orchestral introduction. Then the soloist enters with completely different music — an inward-looking and expressive singing line — and that was already revolutionary because nobody had written anything like it before. The norm was for the soloist to elaborate on the materials given by the orchestra. In the following concertos, Mozart continued to develop this idea, and every time he introduced the soloist in a slightly different way, very rarely presenting the same material as the orchestra. Exploring this incredible development is the main reason for this Mozart Momentum project. I think that what happens in these concertos is like a seed for what was to become the Romantic Piano Concerto where the soloist has more of a heroic role, battling with the orchestra to become an individual.

At the same time, Mozart starts expanding the orchestration, and in his next concerto (No. 22), written just one month later, he introduces the clarinet. The clarinet was a very exotic instrument in Vienna at that time, and Mozart was particularly impressed by the clarinetist Anton Stadler. So he started to give the wind instruments lots more solos and individuality.

And finally, he also expands the virtuosity of the piano part quite considerably. He leans more to the extremities of the keyboard, to the top, and the lower bass, in a way that we associate more with Beethoven. There are also passages, for instance, in the E-flat Concerto, where the octave-like passages in both hands feel almost like Liszt. We don’t think of Mozart as being so crazy pianistically, but he really goes for it all of a sudden. So this is real momentum for him, and it’s exciting to see what happens in these two years.

For this project, we also wanted to include other works by Mozart to see what was happening simultaneously in his other compositions. So there’s even a piece in which I am not playing — the Masonic Funeral Music — which also shows an element of mystery and not much melody. It’s a very atmospheric piece, which is echoed by the Solo Fantasy in C Minor. We also included the Piano Quartet in G minor, which I think is another invention by Mozart. I don’t know of any similar quartets written previously. So hopefully, this shows a diverse picture of him.

In the second part of the project, which will be released later, we will record the two concertos Mozart wrote in 1786 — Nos. 23 and 24. Here he expands even more. The C Minor Concerto — the last of the five — has the largest orchestra yet and includes both clarinets and oboes. The A Major is smaller but also includes the clarinet as a central figure. It’s very silky, wonderful music, so generous and warm. And then there’s this beautiful concert aria which we will include entitled Ch’io mi scordi di te? sung by Christiane Karg. I don’t know any other piece where the piano can almost be heard to comment on the story being told by the soprano.

 

Lovely! And these albums include some lesser-known works, like you said, the Masonic Funeral Music and the Scena and Rondo for soprano, which have quite a different format than the rest of the pieces. How do these fit into the project as a whole, and what made you include them?

I wanted to show the versatility of the composer and the different sides of him during this period. Obviously, the development of the piano concerto is an essential starting point here, which is why we called the project Mozart Momentum. But it was a fantastic period for him in many respects as a composer. In 1786, he wrote The Marriage of Figaro, and you can feel how operatic his music becomes — elements of which carry over into the piano concertos. It’s all about conversation, dialogue, human interaction. Love, hate, lust, sorrow — all those human aspects are constantly present. And I thought it would also be lovely to perform chamber music with the musicians from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, for they are my very human partners in this.

Leif Ove Andsnes Mozart
Credit: Helge Hansen / Sony Music Entertainment

Speaking of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, this is your second recording project with them. What made you develop such a strong relationship with this orchestra?

I think the first tour we did was in 2007. I played quite a long summer tour together with them and the conductor Alan Gilbert, and I just fell in love with their special sound qualities and their approach to seeking out really interesting projects. To be a member of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra is a demanding lifestyle; you are on tour all the time — unfortunately not so much within the last year. They don’t have a geographical home, so you really have to devote yourself to this lifestyle and be part of the orchestra. It’s pretty hard, but I feel they want to create something unique when they come together. There are a lot of strong personalities there. Still, there is a homogenous feeling of attitude and gratitude to play together on this level, which I find very rare. I haven’t found that in other orchestras to the same degree, but also, of course, we developed this musical relationship during the Beethoven Journey project. We played the Beethoven concertos — about 80 concerts — over three years, exploring and re-exploring the same pieces, and you would think one would maybe grow tired of this music. But the opposite happened. After a while, we were so conscious of each other and what the other was doing, constantly listening to each other, and it led to absolute freedom in concert, which I’ve never experienced quite like that.

That is very interesting; thank you for sharing. Something unique about the project you are doing is, the same as the Beethoven cycle, you are playing and conducting these albums. Have the differences in the physical approach to the music made you understand these concertos differently in terms of conducting?

The wonderful thing is that when I am also leading the concertos, I am involved in the music’s storytelling and narrative. Sometimes when you are a soloist with a conductor, you sit there waiting for your entrance, and then you do your thing, and then you wait for the orchestra. When I play and lead, the music becomes a conversation, a dialogue, and it’s wonderful to be part of the music-making all the time. Of course, it’s also a challenge; I often find at the start of these projects, when we are rehearsing, and I haven’t led for a while, that I tend to concentrate foremost on the conducting aspect in order to get the orchestra to do what I had in mind. Then my piano playing might suffer for a few days because there’s such a focus on the orchestra. In those situations, I find that I have to collect myself and concentrate again on the piano playing before we start the concerts. Then it is usually a wonderful experience, even though it remains challenging. The other thing is that I sit “inside” the orchestra. We see each other so clearly; we hear each other so well. There are places in these pieces that are always problematic when you play with a conductor, maybe because of the distance from the winds or because I have a lid on the piano. But when I sit within the orchestra, I take off the piano lid and sit with my back to the audience; many things solve themselves simply by the position of us seeing and hearing each other so well. And that’s, of course, quite authentic. I mean, Mozart would surely never have had a conductor for these pieces. He would sit like that in the middle of the other players, and they would simply perform.

That’s awesome. You also included both the quartets and a trio. How do these different formats — chamber music, solo, concerto — complete each other, both in Mozart’s production and in this specific collaboration with the orchestra?

They are quite different in a way, but the Piano Quartets sometimes have a real concerto-like feeling, especially in the last movements where I have separate parts from the string trio. There is also a separation in other places, such as in the first movement of the G Minor Quartet. The parts are actually quite inter-woven, and it makes a fascinating tapestry, illustrating the contrast of what Mozart was doing at the time. He had so many facets.

At the end of May, will there be a launch tour with the orchestra? Is that correct?

I have to tell you that might not happen, unfortunately. We had a meeting this morning, and although it’s not official yet, I think that we will have to cancel. There have been so many problems with this project. We were supposed to record the 1786 concertos in May, but I think that will be delayed until our autumn tour because the virus situation is making things complicated. For sure it will happen, we are already looking into solutions for the autumn.

Leif Ove Andsnes Mozart
Credit: Helge Hansen / Sony Music Entertainment

How has dealing with the virus made it different from regular years?

This project had a tough start. About two years ago, I was supposed to tour with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra but came down with pneumonia. I was seriously ill and was actually in hospital for three or four days, so there was just no way I could perform. It was our first tour together with Mozart Momentum, and I had really been looking forward to it, so it was a huge disappointment. We were able to perform and record the chamber music repertoire just before COVID hit in February of last year. And then, of course, COVID did hit, and we had another tour cancellation in the spring of 2020, which was when we were also supposed to record the three piano concertos from 1785. In November 2020, we had planned to try again with three concerts in Germany and recording sessions. That same week Germany went into lockdown, and I thought, “Ok, three times unlucky.” But the orchestra miraculously managed to pull together the recording sessions, and the Berlin Philharmonie opened the main hall for us, which was a great luxury. It felt like such a gift in this time to be able to perform together. Really a miracle. And I hope that is evident in the playing — the enormous gratitude we had in being able to actually perform together after all the obstacles we had managed to overcome. I will never forget it. So far, despite all the planning, we have only accomplished in recording the first part of the project together. We are now looking forward to playing many concerts over the next couple of years. I’m sure it will happen. After this summer, hopefully, the world looks a bit different.

Leif Ove Andsnes Mozart Momentum 1785/86

The first volume (2 CDs) — released on 28 May — is dedicated to the year 1785. Tracklisting is:

  1. Album 1 — 1785
  2. Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20, K. 466
  3. Mozart Piano Concerto No. 21, K. 467
  4. Mozart Piano Concerto No. 22, K. 482
  5. Mozart Masonic Funeral Music
  6. Fantasia for Piano in C minor
  7. Quartet in G minor for Piano and Strings

The second volume (also 2 CDs) will be dedicated to the year 1786, and will hopefully be recorded this fall and released next spring. Tracklisting is:

  1. Album 2 — 1786
  2. Rondo in D for Keyboard
  3. Concerto in A for Piano No. 23
  4. Concerto in C minor for Piano No. 24
  5. Quartet for Piano and Strings in E-flat
  6. Piano Trio No. 2 in G
  7. Scena and Rondo for Soprano Ch’io mi scordi di te?

Website: https://mozart-momentum.com

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