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Monday, 8 December 2014

I am to Mozart (and Haydn) as Schubert and Brahms are to me

This reviews Noriko Ogawa’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

5 November

This is a follow-up to the posting What I am looking forward to in the Cambridge Classical Concert Series… (Part III) : a mini-review of Noriko Ogawa’s (@norikogawa's) performance / interpretation of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 83, at Cambridge's Corn Exchange (@CambridgeCornEx) on Wednesday 3 December 2014

This performance set one thinking (concentrating throughout on Noriko's rendition of the solo part (after contact on Twitter, one cannot write 'Ogawa', which would seem unnatural)) :

What if Beethoven felt about Mozart (and, maybe, about Haydn) as we know that, in turn, Schubert and Brahms felt about Beethoven himself – at least with regard to orchestral / large-scale writing – which is to say, in his shadow ?

Might not Beethoven, in his early thirties (we believe) when he composed his Piano Concerto No. 3 (in C Minor, Op. 83), have been comparing himself to Mozart - a composer who, at his death at the age of nearly thirty-six*, may not have completed his famous Requiem**, but the main theme of which Beethoven appears to allude to here... ?

The autograph title-page of Mozart K. 626, Requiem

Yes, the list itself of works without Opus Number ascribed to Beethoven after his death is lengthy, but he could well have been more than keenly aware of Mozart, both as a prolific composer and as one who, even as a teenager*, had not had trouble finding his own voice with works for orchestra in what resembles his mature style.

Particularly in the first movement, Noriko deliberately held back in handling the initial material, not so much using legato as, in the more direct passages and motifs, not making them as expressive as moments where the heart of the music clearly lies for her : there was, thus, a double-contrast between the slight abruptness to Beethoven’s diction in ‘the cooler places’, where it felt as though he might be dutifully paying his respects to the earlier performer / director / composer (since, of course, Beethoven – as long as his hearing allowed – was another such), and where he appeared to break free in language that we know to be his.

As to the question of the cadenzas, they were brought to us with such freshness as to seem spontaneous, and it mattered little whether they were a later addition, or Beethoven's seeking to notate what he may have performed in 1803. They had a natural creativity to them and were alive, when some bring them to us in ‘studied’ form, maybe note perfect, but lacking warmth.

As Noriko played it for us, the opening of the second movement, for piano alone, felt as though it was not just recognizably Beethovenesque, but also capable of founding and fostering the rest of the movement, laying a sure basis for it, almost as if Beethoven were saying :

Look, this is my calling-card ! Here, I can write in this style – and, here, I can seamlessly integrate it into the orchestral texture, for which I have prepared the ground with it.

For composers or performers acclimatize to and acquire their craft, technique, approach and skill with and through others, at conservatoires and colleges of music, who have gone before, and homage across wider generations then becomes part of what, say, Stravinsky is about, in relation to Tchaikovsky, with Le baiser de la fée (The Fairy’s Kiss) in 1928 (and when he revised the piece in 1950) – or Schoenberg, orchestrating Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1 (in G Minor, Op. 25)****.

The reflective moments in the second movement, alongside those that were less inward, made the more celebratory liveliness of the Rondo - Allegro feel an innate progression, an inevitable development from it : with great music, just as with a powerful film or play, one does not even hesitate to imagine how it could have been other when it has been well conceived by those playing it, complete with, as one would expect, passing-notes and elisions executed with ease.

Noriko may not have intended to make the exact journey suggested above with her audience, for, with a chance to speak to her briefly in the interval, she suggested that Beethoven, if he were indeed trying to exorcize the spirit of Mozart, is not as chromatic as Mozart (assuming that he could be writing in homage to Mozart in order to move forward).

In this kind of way, Brahms clearly established his inner confidence with works for larger ensembles when he both wrote and had his Symphony No. 2 performed in six months, hard on the heels of the successful performance of his Symphony No. 1, which had taken much more than a decade in the writing – and whose predecessor he had transmuted into the poorly received Piano Concerto No. 1.

It does not matter, in a way, if this sort of account has truth outside the concert-hall, for the feeling from many commentators that Beethoven is being, especially in this concerto, so Mozartian must have some sort of meaning, and why should that, in this kind of fantasy, not go along with the pianist’s interpretation – even if it were never in Noriko's head to convey it ?

Many a writer has viewed him- or herself as a conduit*****, just as we have in the legend of Mozart’s compositional ease, perpetrated by history and perpetuated – as if he were God’s amanuensis, along with the Mozart / Salieri story – in such accounts as Peter Shaffer’s play (from 1979) and the huge film of the same name derived from it, Amadeus (1984).


* To the day, Mozart died 223 years ago yesterday (in 1791). It appears that Beethoven was 56 / 57 when he died.

** In D Minor (K. 626).

*** When he wrote his five glorious Concertos for Violin and Orchestra (respectively (as numbered), K. 207 (in B Flat Major), K. 211 (in D Major), K. 216 (in G Major), K. 218 (in D Major), and K. 219 (in A Major)).

**** The LA Phil’s web-site [the work was first performed by this orchestra, under Klemperer, in 1937] tells us this about why :

Schoenberg explained the rationale behind his orchestration in a letter to Alfred Frankenstein, the music critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, almost a year after the premiere :

'1. I like the piece

'2. It is seldom played

'3. It is always very badly played, because the better the pianist, the louder he plays, and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted once to hear everything, and this I achieved.'

***** For example, novelist Russell Hoban was pleased to see himself as a channel, and to invent characters in his books as writers in his image, e.g. Hermann Orff in The Medusa Frequency, one of his finest novels (published by Jonathan Cape, London, 1987).

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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