Mozart

Meet the man who says improvisation is the key to Mozart

In August 1993, the pianist Robert Levin sat down in Walthamstow Assembly Rooms with the conductor Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) to record the complete piano concertos of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart was big – the bicentenary celebrations of 1991 had made a global impact. And Hogwood and the AAM were big too. After their groundbreaking period-instrument Mozart symphony cycle a decade earlier, the 27 piano concertos seemed like a wholly achievable ambition. What could go wrong? ‘For Mozart’s contemporaries, what surpassed even his virtuosity was his ability to improvise’ Only, as it turned out, the entire classical record industry. The project was meant to take

Simply not as good as Mozart’s: RCM’s Don Giovanni Tenorio reviewed

In Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, Don Giovanni finds himself in hell, chatting to the sentient Statue that dragged him to his doom. ‘It sounds rather flat without my trombones,’ admits the Statue, conceding that once you remove the genius of Mozart from the mix, you’re left with a trite (if titillating) morality tale. You could draw the same conclusion from the opera Don Giovanni Tenorio, by Giuseppe Gazzaniga (1743-1818), and if you haven’t heard of him you might wonder why not. Institutional racism? Patriarchal hegemony? Not this time. Gazzaniga was a Neapolitan composer of perfectly adequate operas that simply aren’t as good as Mozart’s. Anyway, Don Giovanni Tenorio made

Was Vera Brittain really this insufferable? Buxton Festival’s The Land of Might-Have-Been reviewed

‘Ring out your bells for me, ivory keys! Weave out your spell for me, orchestra please!’ It’s lush stuff, the music of Ivor Novello, and when the Buxton International Festival announced a new musical ‘built around’ his songs, the heart took flight. Novello is one of those fringe passions that are, one suspects, a lot less marginal than fashion might suggest. If his great hit operettas of the 1930s and 1940s – The Dancing Years, King’s Rhapsody and the rest – really are unrevivable (and the jury is still out on that), a sympathetic, newly constructed showcase for his finest material in the manner of the Gershwin reboot Crazy For

Wikipedia does more justice to this fascinating story than this film: Chevalier reviewed

Chevalier is a biopic of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, whom you’ve probably never heard of, as I hadn’t. He was an 18th-century French-African virtuoso violinist and composer who wowed everyone in his day – in 1779, John Adams, then the American ambassador to France, called him ‘the most accomplished Man in Europe’ – but was erased from history and is only lately being rediscovered. Fascinating, you would think, and he was fascinating. Even a cursory look at his Wikipedia entry is thrilling. But this is not a fascinating or thrilling film. It is handsomely mounted yet strangely bland and strikes too many false notes. I was going to say

WNO sinks an unsinkable opera: The Magic Flute, at Birmingham Hippodrome, reviewed

As stage directions go, the The Magic Flute opens with a zinger. ‘Tamino enters from the right wearing a splendid Japanese hunting costume.’ That’s right, a Japanese hunting costume. What does that even look like? More to the point, what would a Viennese theatrical costume designer in 1791 have thought it looked like? Surviving evidence suggests that the answer was ‘nothing on Earth’, which is handy because it gives subsequent interpreters a huge amount of licence. Schikaneder’s rag-bag libretto has its quirks and non sequiturs, but it’s an astonishingly robust piece of theatre. I’ve seen The Magic Flute done as panto, as manga, as gothic fantasy and as 1970s British

The history of music – at breakneck speed

From Ladybird’s The Story of Music (a dinky 50 pages, generously illustrated) to Richard Taruskin’s five-volume epic The Oxford History of Western Music, the history of classical music has been sliced and stretched in print to fit every possible length, format and agenda. Andrew Gant’s Five Straight Lines joins the cluster of works jostling and elbowing at the midpoint of these extremes. The Oxford-based academic (whose previous books on carols and hymns have introduced us to a genial, approachable narrator, with a welcome glint in his eye), shouts no provocative argument or USP from his cover, makes no novel claims for his survey. This is, quite simply, a narrative of

Reprehensible – but fun: Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s Complete DG Recordings reviewed

 Grade: B It must have been an interesting day in the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s press office when Blair Tindall’s memoir Mozart in the Jungle hit the bookshops in 2005. ‘He sat in the desk chair, pushed aside the first oboe part of Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers and tapped a pile of cocaine on the glass’ runs a typical anecdote. Even in 2005, it wasn’t really what anyone expected to hear from a former member of Orpheus — a youthful, conductor-less New York outfit who used to pose for album covers dressed in spotless white. For a brief moment during the 1980s CD boom, Orpheus was going to save classical

In defence of the earworm

That strain again… it’s the morning after the concert and one tune is still there, playing in the head upon waking, running around and around on an unbreakable loop over breakfast. I’ve never liked the term ‘earworm’. It suggests an alien parasite, an aural violation, when in fact some part of the musical brain is clearly in love with this scrap of melody, and getting a microgram of a dopamine hit every time it presses ‘repeat’. It’s consensual, even pleasurable. Why fight it? There’s an Arthur C. Clarke story about a scientist obsessed by the finale of Sibelius’s Second Symphony. He invents an algorithm for musical catchiness and promptly starves

Small but perfectly formed: the Royal College of Music Museum reopening reviewed

Haydn is looking well — in fact, he’s positively glowing. The dignified pose; the modest, intelligent smile: it’s only when you squint closely at the portrait that Thomas Hardy painted in London in 1791 that you clock the full peachy-pink smoothness of his complexion. It’s curious, because Haydn suffered disfiguring smallpox as a child, and a contemporary waxwork bust in Vienna is cratered like a moon in a periwig. Hardy’s portrait is a promotional image, commissioned by the music publisher John Bland. This is the Georgian equivalent of a celebrity headshot: a photoshopped, endlessly-reproduceable selling tool, so potent that it’s still being used to shift recordings 230 years later. Well,

Hit every auditory G-spot simultaneously: CBSO/Hough/Gardner concert reviewed

Rejoice: live music is back. Or at least, live music with a live audience, which, as Sir Simon Rattle admitted, addressing the masked and socially distanced crowd immediately before the LSO’s first full-scale public performance for 14 months, is kind of the whole point. Yes, he said, they’d streamed online concerts from the Barbican, but the silence of emptiness is a very different proposition from the silence of a hall containing 1,000 human beings. He’s right, of course. Those 14 months have tested to destruction the notion that digital platforms can offer the same sort of emotional nourishment. Once again, then — rejoice! And nobody mention the Indian variant. For

Are Mozart’s forgotten contemporaries worth reviving?

There are worse fates than posthumous obscurity. When Mozart visited Munich in October 1777, he was initially reluctant to visit his friend, the Bohemian composer Josef Myslivecek. Myslivecek was in hospital, undergoing treatment (as he told it) for a facial cancer brought on by a recent coach accident. But this being the 18th century, and Myslivecek having a reputation as a gallant, Mozart suspected venereal disease. When he finally appeared at Myslivecek’s bedside, he was appalled by what he saw: ‘The surgeon, that ass, has burned off his nose! Imagine the agony he must have suffered.’ Within four years, the luckless — and noseless — Myslivecek had died in poverty,

Alan Rusbridger on the joys of four-hand piano

One of the few social activities not yet prohibited under lockdown laws is four-handed piano playing. I don’t mean sitting side-by-side at one keyboard. That would risk infection and, if snitched on, the possibility of sharing a prison cell with Piers Corbyn. No, the four hands must be divided equally across two pianos, and the instruments must be end-to-end. Safely isolated in this manner — perhaps three or four metres apart — the ivories can be tickled for as long as you want. I’ve been a devoted four-hand piano player all my life — due entirely to the limitations of the two I was born with. On one keyboard I

The grotesque unevenness of Mozart’s Requiem

It is amazing what fine performances you can get beamed to your computer these days. Slightly less amazing is the packaging these events come in, when they do. ENO relayed free a concert of Mozart’s Requiem, but it was preceded by a snatch of Strictly, with a row of muscular young guys ripping off their shirts, before we entered the Coliseum for a heavily pregnant Danielle de Niese hyping the event we were about to see and hear. She is delightful, but I wish she hadn’t been compelled to tell us that, despite his hard life, Mozart was sending us a message of hope that everyone, however ignorant of classical

Would be much better without Bill or Ted: Bill & Ted Face the Music reviewed

I think I am supposed to say that Bill & Ted Face the Music, the third in a franchise about two Californian morons who time travel to save the world, is a harmless satire on American teenage good-naturedness and stupidity. I’m not sure about that: I think it is more likely evidence of what American cinema has done to the American mind since Jaws turned the B-list film into the A-list film, and vice-versa. Its heinous. The premise is: creatures of the future decided long ago (in 1989) that Bill and Ted would one day write a song that would heal reality. So Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure saw them

The forgotten female composer fêted by Mozart and Haydn

A few years ago, I was sitting in the London Library researching a book about blind people across the ages. As a semi-blind person myself, I sighed at the lack of women, other than the endlessly chipper Helen Keller, who never had a bad day. Ever. My sister, however, drew my attention to a two-line wiki entry for the 18th-century composer, singer and professor — and darling of the Viennese musical court — Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759–1824). Ten years passed, and after many hours of research in libraries and chats with music scholars, we now find ourselves — to our utter amazement — co-writing a chamber opera about her

The marvel of Mozart’s letters

It’s 1771, you’re in Milan, and your 14-year-old genius son has just premièred his new opera. How do you reward him? What would be a fun family excursion in an era before multiplexes or theme parks? Leopold Mozart knew just the ticket. ‘I saw four rascals hanged here on the Piazza del Duomo,’ wrote young Wolfgang back to his sister Maria Anna (‘Nannerl’), excitedly. ‘They hang them just as they do in Lyons.’ He was already something of a connoisseur of public executions. The Mozarts had spent four weeks in Lyons in 1766 and as the music historian Stanley Sadie points out, Leopold had clearly taken his son (ten) and

The musical vaccination we all needed: ETO’s Cosi fan tutte reviewed

Anyone familiar with Joe Hill-Gibbins’s work will brace instinctively when the curtain goes up on his new Figaro. He’s the young British director who smeared the Young Vic with jelly and custard (The Changeling) and transformed it into a giant mud pit (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), covered the Almeida in blood and more mud (The Tragedy of King Richard the Second) and bathed his cast in a stomach-turning blend of salad cream, ketchup and baked beans at the Edinburgh Festival (Greek).So when the curtain rises on a white-walled corridor whose sterile purity is broken up only by four equally white doors you do mentally reach for a mop. But Hill-Gibbins’s