Pianists make Mozart into a major player Repertory: Largely overlooked in the 19th century, his piano concertos have become a treasure trove for modern musicians.

Classical Sounds

July 14, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Also, a review of Mozart recordings in Sunday's Arts section incorrectly stated the cause of death for pianist Geza Anda. He died of throat cancer in 1977.

The Sun regrets the error.

No sensible person nowadays would argue with scholar Alfred Eisenstein's remark that Mozart's piano concertos represent "the peak of all his instrumental achievement, at least in the orchestral domain." The 23 concertos, particularly the dozen or so he introduced to Vienna from 1784 through 1786, almost certainly represent the greatest sustained outburst of genius in the history of music.

It may seem strange to modern listeners, therefore -- particularly when almost every pianist carries several of the pieces in his repertory and when the current catalog lists upward of 700 different recordings of individual concertos -- to realize that it was not so long ago when almost all of these popular pieces were terra incognita to even devoted music lovers.


When Artur Schnabel and George Szell performed Mozart's Concerto No. 25 in C major (K. 503) in Vienna in 1934, for example, the pianist and conductor were surprised to discover that their performance was apparently the first since the composer himself last performed it in 1787.

Throughout the 19th century and the first three decades of the 20th century, there were (as far as the concert-going public was concerned) only two Mozart concertos. One was the dark and dramatic Concerto in D minor (K. 466) -- which Beethoven himself performed and for which he composed cadenzas and which represented to 19th-century listeners (for whom the concertos of Beethoven were the standard) the sort of piece that Mozart would have written had he not been fettered by 18th-century conventions. The other was the sunshine-crossed - - an - occasional-cloud Concerto in A major (K. 488), which represented the image of Mozart-as-angel, which persisted well into the 20th century.

A discussion of why this situation changed so drastically -- enough so that this reviewer finds himself writing about not less than 10 recently issued (or reissued) Mozart concerto recordings -- would have to take into account the sociology of changing tastes, the advances in recording technology and the advent of a new historical self-consciousness that led to the investigation of the music of the past. But a few things are sure: There was a treasure of masterpieces for pianists and audiences to discover, and there were several pianists around at the end of World War I who were adventurous enough to look beyond what was then the standard repertory.

The most important of these pianists was Schnabel, who set a standard for performances of Mozart that has yet to be matched and who persuaded his record company to let him record six of the concertos. But Schnabel had contemporaries such as Edwin Fischer, Mieczyslaw Horszowski and Walter Gieseking who also made impressive forays into Mozart. And they were succeeded after World War II by pianists such as Rudolf Serkin, Robert Casadesus, Clara Haskil and Clifford Curzon, and younger ones such as Eugene Istomin, Geza Anda and Leon Fleisher, all of whom made the concertos an important part of their repertory.

Watershed in recording

Still, when Geza Anda's recording of the G major (K. 453) and C major (K. 467) concertos appeared on the Deutsche Grammophon label in 1962, these works were described in the pages of Gramophone magazine as "two of the less familiar of Mozart's piano concertos."

Anda's release was a watershed. By 1970, Anda had recorded all of the concertos for DG -- the first time that a major pianist and an important record company had made such a commitment to the Mozart concertos -- and the Hungarian pianist's efforts played a major role in familiarizing the public with these great pieces.

That initial Anda release of K. 453 and 467 had unforeseen significance when the Swedish director Bo Widerberg selected the pianist's recording of the slow movement of K. 467 for the sound track of his romantic and immensely popular 1967 film, "Elvira Madigan." The result initially was that K. 467's andante became an instant dormitory classic -- surpassing even Ravel's "Bolero" and the 18th variation of Rachmaninoff's "Paganini" Rhapsody. Mozart's concertos -- and not just K. 467's andante -- have been in our ears in elevators, in hotel lobbies and when we're on "hold" ever since.

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