Keys to Mozart

Mozart is opera

Daria van den Bercken: ‘Every memory of Mozart I’ve had since I was young has come back to me during the preparations for this CD. To me Mozart is opera. There’s nothing new in that, many people feel the same way. ‘Listen to his operas and you’ll get to know every facet of Mozart,’ my piano teacher Mila Baslawskaja told me when, at the age of 12, I first played a Mozart sonata. So I did listen to them, and my love of opera was born.

‘Melody is the essence of music’ – Mozart, Vienna 1786

Mozart’s characters are comic or tragic; he has them laugh and cry, love and mourn, lie and deceive. He had an unerring insight into the human psyche. You can come across these sharp powers of observation in his letters, in which he wrote exactly what he thought of certain people. ‘I must now write something that concerns our Raaff,’ Mozart wrote to his father in 1778. ‘When he was not singing, he stood looking like a sulky child.’ And in 1777 he wrote about the daughter of piano maker Stein: ‘Anyone who can see and hear her play without laughing must be Stein [stone] like her father. She perches herself exactly opposite the treble, avoiding the centre, that she may have more room to throw herself about and make grimaces. She rolls her eyes and smirks; when a passage comes twice she always plays it slower the second time, and if three times, slower still.’

Mozart sings

‘As Dostoyevsky reveals the human mind in his novels, Mozart demonstrates his precise observation of character in his operas. He created the most vivid characters, with all their feelings and contractions. You can also hear them singing in his piano music. I certainly don’t know all Mozart’s operas by heart, because I have no memory for librettos. But I do know that ‘Porgi amor’ from The Marriage of Figaro is the perfect aria: written straight from the heart, just like the Adagio from the Sonata in F, K332.

In the first three themes of this piano sonata you can immediately recognise three opera characters. The ambiguous opening theme is a little reminiscent of Susanna’s aria ‘Deh Vieni’, in which the Figaro’s fiancée sings a love song for the count. In the second theme you can recognise the ‘Pa-pa’ of Papageno from The Magic Flute. The third theme has the dark emotions of ‘Der hölle Rache’, the famous aria sung by the Queen of the Night. And at this point you’re only halfway through the first page of music!

As a girl, for years I had to sing at the cathedral choir school in Utrecht. We sung music from every period. I learnt a lot from this. The most important thing was that music always has to breathe. When I play Mozart on the piano, I concentrate on making the melodies sing and the legato fluent. So Mozart breathes, sings and flows.’

In search of Mozart

‘When I was working on the music of Handel, I felt extremely free. There were virtually no recordings, so I had no frame of reference in my mind. How often does it happen to you as a musician, even though you have been occupied with four centuries of music all your life, that you discover something you have never heard of? I was delighted, because it meant I was able to play Handel according to my own feeling. This opened up windows in my mind, so I also did some curious things, like playing Handel in the street on a mobile piano. “Is this Bach?” people would ask me. “No, it’s Handel!”

But with Mozart, with whom I ended my Handel project, it is just the other way round. Mozart’s music has been recorded so often that everyone has certain expectations of it. So with Mozart I decided to take the opposite approach: I started by listening thoroughly to his oeuvre. Over the past years I’ve heard dozens of different Mozart recordings. I wanted to get to know everything as well as I could so I could then throw it all overboard. As I did so I made some fantastic rediscoveries. The playfulness and elegance with which Vladimir Horowitz plays the works of Mozart, for example, or the beautiful Mozart recordings by Ingrid Haebler.’

Authentic Mozart

‘Personally I would rather not play Mozart on the fortepiano, but I have learnt a lot from fortepiano players like Malcolm Bilson and Baroque specialists like Harnoncourt. In authentic renditions everything about Mozart is more on edge. There is a lot more emphasis on the articulation, and on the style in which Mozart’s notes ‘speak’ to us. This makes me think I should take my ideas further. Because what’s even more important to me is how Mozart ‘sings’ to us.

I have tried playing Mozart on the fortepiano and it is very inspiring. An old instrument like this naturally produces a different kind of sound with sharper contrasts. But the dynamic range is much smaller and sooner or later I come up against a wall. For my feeling, on the fortepiano Mozart can’t entirely sing and flow freely. So I’ve decided to record Mozart on a modern grand piano.’

Mozart is universal

‘The more I read about Mozart, the more I came across the word ‘universal. After a while this term leaves you with an empty feeling. Because what does ‘universal’ actually mean? I then started thinking about what Mozart still has to say to us today, what elements in his music are timeless. This brings me to words like ‘elegance’, ‘playfulness’, ‘depth’ and of course ‘singing’. And that takes me in an exciting direction.

When I was first studying Mozart, my teacher had me write big calligraphic letters in the air so I could get that flowing feeling of elegance into my system and play without any unnecessary tension in my muscles. It was then that I understood the connection between elegance and Mozart.

As part of the Keys to Mozart project, in exiting ways I will be developing the ‘universal’ ideas that to me are the essence of Mozart, among other things using film. Keep an eye on my website!’