Mozart Piano Concerto in A-Major no. 23 K. 488 - Performed by Maurizio Pollini and the Vienna Philharmonic/Conducted by Karl Bohm
When Evan asked me to name my favourite album, I found myself both deeply flattered by and cursing him. Of course I had to say yes, but how on earth was I supposed to make but a single choice? The easy way out would have been to offer some sort of preamble, mentioning others I might have chosen, and thus to have my cake and eat it. But no, I exercised a rare degree – for me – of self-discipline, and resolved to select just one. It was upon hearing this performance that, somehow, something clicked in my mind or, perhaps better, in my soul. Doubtless foundations had been laid beforehand. Though memories of childhood and adolescence are notoriously unreliable, I am reasonably sure that, around this time, I had begun far more ‘seriously’ to practise the piano, if only because I had finally reached a stage at which I could enjoy ‘playing’ piano music that was ‘great’ music, for instance, Mozart’s eternally-underrated piano sonatas. For reasons that I simply cannot recall, but which may not have been eternally unconnected, I had somewhat at random, bought a cassette for my mother as a birthday present. She played it a few days afterward, whilst, if I remember correctly, taking a bath. I heard the music from my bedroom and found myself utterly spellbound, as I have been ever since upon hearing this very same recording. (I eventually bought it for myself on cassette, and later CD.)
The recording in question was of Mozart’s great A major piano concerto, no.23, KV 488, and I had chanced upon what remains – not only, I hope, for sentimental reasons – my single favourite recording of a work I now love far more than words can express. (That is a problem, I realise, when writing for a blog, but anyway...) Maurizio Pollini, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and Karl Böhm: such a ‘dream’ partnership must have been brought to me by something akin to Providence. Pollini’s ‘chilly’ reputation – not unlike that of one of his great collaborators, the composer-conductor Pierre Boulez – has always been at best misleading, yet no one hearing him here, ‘accompanied’ in the best sense by the agonising warmth and beauty of the Vienna Philharmonic, and the almost ageless wisdom of the veteran Mozartian, Böhm, might conceivably accuse him of any such thing. There is, rightly, nothing of the sentimental; there is, rightly, a profound understanding of form, of harmonic rhythm, of everything that makes the work ultimately meaningful; there is, rightly, the most perfectly graded of crystalline responses to Mozart’s impossibly unsparing writing. (Every note must sound both for itself, and in perfect connection with every other, whilst the performance must sound as though it is the easiest thing in the world. Beethovenian struggle has no place here.)
And yet, one never doubts that this is ‘absolute’ music readily plumbing dramatic depths at least as great as any to which words may happen to be attached, whether that be through Pollini’s aristocratic yet imploring voicing and turning of Mozart’s phrases, as human, as operatic, as anything in The Marriage of Figaro; whether it be through the VPO’s alchemic orchestral blend, which yet retains utterly individual timbral distinction (just try those legendary Viennese oboes, which you will either love or hate!); or whether it be through Böhm’s second-nature guidance of those notoriously recalcitrant players, here as biddable as sailors in the presence of a siren. The rare – in every sense – tonality of F-sharp minor in the great Adagio slow movement cannot fail to move, Orpheus-like, even the stoniest of Fury hearts in a performance such as this. Yet the first movement, vernal yet haunted by flickering reminiscences and presentiments of an almost Brahmsian autumn – clarinets certainly help there, especially when they come from this orchestra – has one smiling through Mozartian tears in a sense both tragic and Elysian. Without underlining, that easiest, most deadly temptation in Mozart performance, that same suspicion that the Angel of Death may not actually be so far away, is brought to us in the apparent high spirits of the finale too. I have learned so much, not only about Mozart, but also about myself, through the epiphany of this recording.
And so, when the possibility came as an undergraduate to perform my first piano concerto with an orchestra, there was never the slightest doubt in my mind as to which I should choose. Thank goodness no recording exists, but in the end, I was not entirely displeased with the result. I managed, moreover, to exorcise the demon, which, following a very bad experience, had me abstain from performing any Mozart whatsoever in public for a good few years. This recording was in a sense responsible for both those moments of madness. Do not let Mozart’s – or Pollini’s – Apollonian reputation mislead; this is dangerous, uncanny, life-changing music: at least as much as anything by Wagner or Mahler.
Boulezian is a world-renowned blogger and music history professor in London
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