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Mozart’s Fantasia in D minor

The Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians defines fantasia as “a piece of instrumental music owning no restriction of formal construction, but the direct product of the composer’s impulse.” The term itself is somewhat loose, its definition changing over the course of music history.

Elizabethan fantasias for keyboard were built from whatever musical idea took the “fancy” of the performer, who made as much or as little of it as he wanted. It was a good way to warm up while checking the tuning of the instrument at the start of a performance.

Here is William Byrd’s Fantasy in A from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, played on a spinet harpsichord built in London in 1718.

One of the best examples of the Baroque fantasia is  JS Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. I have chosen a version by the great pioneer of the harpsichord Wanda Landowska, who manages to extract a huge variety of colours from her hybrid Pleyel instrument. The performance (recorded in 1935) is magnificent – almost gothic, and very much of its time.

In the early Classical period, the fantasia evolved into two types, the prelude and the episodic. The composers who belonged to the keyboard school of JS Bach’s second son, CPE Bach, continued the Baroque improvisatory tradition and wrote bold, imaginative prelude-type fantasias. Think of an improvised prelude, where the composer-performer presented their ideas and demonstrated their knowledge and inspiration moment by moment to a small group of connoisseurs – literally making it up as they went along. When writing this out in conventional notation, frequent changes of tempo and meter are needed (you’ll see what I mean from the scrolling score in the following clip).

Here is Robert Hill playing CPE Bach’s rather splendid Fantasia in F# minor (1787), played on a modern copy of a Cristofori piano from c. 1720.

At the same time, Classical composers led by Mozart developed a new episodic-type fantasia, alternating sections that sound improvisatory with music that is much more tightly structured and organised. In addition to the famous Fantasia in C minor, K 475, that goes with the Sonata in the same key (K 457), Mozart wrote another astonishing Fantasia in C minor, K 396, much less played. Do explore it, it’s wonderful!

The Fantasia in D minor, K 397, is among Mozart’s most beloved works for piano. I am very happy to announce that I have just published a video walkthrough of this piece in my Intermediate Repertoire series on the Online Academy, and would like to offer this short video extract here – illustrating the challenges of the Adagio section and how to solve them in practice and performance.

Click here to view the complete video on the Online Academy (requires login or sign-up)

It may surprise you to learn that Mozart did not complete K 397, his manuscript stopping on a dominant 7th chord in bar 97. Scholars believe Mozart might have intended to write something else in conclusion, possibly a fugue, and that it was finished for publication by August Eberhard Müller. Because the closing bars are not actually by Mozart himself, Mitsuko Uchida feels justified in composing her own ending.

What happened to the fantasia after Mozart? Beethoven’s two Sonatas, op. 27 (including the Moonlight) are both subtitled “quasi una fantasia”, and we find classical form mixed up with more free-spirited elements. And then came Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy, a work that combines sonata form, variation and fugue in a free-form structure that so inspired the Romantic composers.

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Mozart’s Shorter Piano Pieces – Practising the Piano

A volume that is in almost constant use in my studio is the shorter piano pieces by Mozart in the Henle edition. It contains the tiny pieces Mozart wrote as a child, as well as the Rondos, Fantasies, and other pieces that don’t fall into the sonata or variation categories. All of them are fascinating, and the volume includes some real gems that pianists don’t seem to know.

For the Henle Urtext edition, follow this link

Among my very favourites is the Adagio in B minor, K. 540, a personal and profound work full of wonders. The magisterial performance of Daniel Barenboim I once owned on LP record still haunts me, but I cannot seem to find it anywhere. Here is Murray Perahia’s equally beautiful performance, and I hope it inspires you to include this piece in your repertoire.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, it is known that Mozart had a great sense of humour. In one of his most tragic pieces, the finale of the C minor piano concerto, K 491, instead of writing repeat signs in the conventional manner, he wrote a little smiley face that looks back to where he wants the players to return. The autograph is in the library of the Royal College of Music, London, and when I was a student there I was given the rare privilege of handling the score (yes, I did have to wear gloves).

Mozart also wrote a funeral march – as a joke. One of his students, Barbara Ployer, was a fine pianist but apparently did not enjoy her counterpoint studies with him. In order not to discourage her, he wrote a very short piece entitled Marche Funèbre del Signor Maestro Contrapunto, K 453a, in which Mr. Counterpoint is dispatched forever – and she never had to take another counterpoint lesson.

There is only one known portrait of Ms. Ployer, one scribbled by Mozart himself in the margin of another manuscript, showing an elaborate high hairdo and a less-than-flattering hook nose.

Some years after Mozart’s death a sheet of manuscript paper was found in Barbara’s scrapbook containing this piece written in Mozart’s handwriting. Only 16 bars long, the Funeral March became a popular piece among pianists of the 19th century but nowadays it seems to have become neglected. It is full of interest and colour, so do have a look at it.

For the score, follow this link

In this fortepiano recording, Kristian Bezuidenhout brings out the contrasts in the piece by playing the dotted rhythms sharply and the expressive elements with freedom. Notice how colourful his instrument is in the different registers.

Another unusual work is the Andante in F Major, K.616. It is the last of three works Mozart wrote during the final year of his life for a mechanical organ, or musical clock. Scholars believe it was commissioned by Count Joseph Deym von Strzitez, a Viennese aristocrat who owned several mechanical organs that were powered by clockwork, one of which played solemn music in a mausoleum dedicated to the memory of the late Field-Marshal Laudon.

For the score, follow this link

Here is the Andante in a performance by a celebrated pianist of yesteryear, Walter Gieseking – remembered today especially for his colourful playing of Debussy.

Another little delight is the Adagio in C for Glass Harmonica, K. 356. The glass harmonica (or glass harp) was once a popular instrument (Beethoven, Donizetti, Richard Strauss and others wrote for it), before it fell out of fashion. Here is Alexander Lemeshev playing K. 356, but it can of course be played on a keyboard.

For the autograph score, follow this link

I will leave you with another miracle, the surprisingly dissonant Minuet in D, K 355, played here by Lili Kraus in a recording from the early 1950s.

For the score, follow this link

To purchase the Henle Urtext volume containing all the above pieces, and plenty more besides, click here.

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Vandalising Mozart’s K. 331? – Practising the Piano

In 2014, an amazing discovery was made in the National Széchényi Library in Budapest – a four-page fragment of part of Mozart’s Sonata in A major, K. 331, in the composer’s own handwriting. As a result, new editions have been able to correct some small errors on the part of the first edition by Artaria (Vienna, 1784) that pianists have been playing wrongly for over two centuries. The story is an extremely exciting one – you can read all about it on the sonata’s very own website.

Bärenreiter’s 2017 edition

I wonder how many players who invest in elite Urtext editions actually bother to read the prefaces? The 2017 Bärenreiter edition not only informs us about the genesis of the work, but also provides an evaluation of the sources as well as helpful notes on performance practice by Mario Aschauer. These notes give information about the types of pianos Mozart would have played – very useful when it comes to making decisions about pedalling, touch and articulation – and the always-tricky subject of ornamentation.

Staccato dots and strokes

The notation for different lengths and qualities of staccato differs depending on the composer and the style period. According to the preface of the Bärenreiter edition, the staccato stroke was, for Mozart, interchangeable with the staccato dot. 

A particular problem of Mozart philology is the reproduction of staccato marks [the staccato dot or the staccato stroke]. The first edition of K. 331 exclusively uses strokes, except for the combination with slurs (portato) where dots are used. Mozart’s autograph features dots and strokes, but above all numerous intermediate forms that cannot be easily identified. In addition, Mozart occasionally notates simultaneously dots and strokes in different voices…or in parallel passages, one time with dots, another with strokes…Furthermore, recent research has convincingly argued that with Mozart there is no musical difference in meaning between the two different kinds of marks. (Preface, XIII)

Glenn Gould’s recording

The recording made by Glenn Gould (released in 1973) tends to put into perspective such nit-picking over the minutiae of performance, just in case we become obsessive about it all. Here Mozart’s supposed intentions hardly seem to matter, and the score is fair game for the most bizarre conception imaginable. 

According to a 1966 interview with Humphrey Burton, Gould hadn’t much of a conception of the piece until about a week before he went in to record it, and surprised himself with what he came up with. He introduced “a few really wild things”, turning the theme into an “Anton Webern-like statement of apostrophes” at such a remarkably slow tempo as to be truly shocking. Not only that, he makes massive incisions in articulation that have to be heard to be believed. Gould’s intention was to play it “so maddeningly slowly that I had to get everybody’s hackles aroused. I had to get a reaction”. He gradually let each variation move forward, finally “doing one really perverse thing, and that is taking a variation that is Mozart has – forgive me! – actually marked adagio, and turning it into an allegretto. Gradually the whole movement took off.” When challenged by the interviewer, Gould insisted that this actually works for him. He wanted to make people sit up and listen anew to a work so well-known it has become jaded. What’s your reaction? The official Glenn Gould website has this to say about the recording.

No Gould recording received a more solid thrashing than his reading of the A-major Sonata, K. 331: “The most loathsome record ever made!”—“It all conjures up an image of a tremendously precocious but very nasty little boy trying to put one over on his piano teacher.”—“It is very difficult to see what Gould is out to prove, unless the rumor that he actually hates this music is true.”

In case you are under the impression that everything Gould did was off-the-wall, you might be surprised by how beautiful – and faithful to the score – his Brahms Intermezzi recordings were. Have a listen to these, and be prepared for something rather special. In Gould’s own words:  

It’s the sexiest interpretation of Brahms’s Intermezzi you’ve ever heard—and I really think it is perhaps the best piano playing I have done. You know what an incurable romantic I am anyway.

Resources

For an analysis of Mozart’s K. 331, click here

For Malcolm Bilson’s recording on the fortepiano, click here

For Tuija Hakkila’s recording on the fortepiano, click here

For Olga Jegunova’s 2012 live performance, click here

To hear the janissary effects in the last movement (Rondo alla turca) possible on a period fortepiano played here by Manuela Giardina, click here

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Mozart’s Sonata in G, K283

Arthur Schnabel famously said that “Mozart is too easy for children and too difficult for adults.” The modest technical difficulties and seemingly straightforward musical expression in his sonatas make many of them more approachable to younger players than, say, most of Beethoven’s. But it is this very simplicity and purity that make performing Mozart on the piano such a challenge. The notes may be few in number, but every one counts. A successful performance hinges on mastering numerous small details while retaining a sense of the long lines that contain all this detail.

New From the Ground Up edition

Our latest addition to our From the Ground Up series features the first movement of Mozart’s fifth sonata in G major (K283). Mozart composed his first six piano sonatas in late 1774 to early 1775. At eighteen, Mozart was already a highly-experienced composer with a masterful and mature style of his own. The fifth sonata, in G major, is one of the most often played and studied of these early sonatas. Its sophisticated phrasing, rhythmic vitality, and engaging lyricism make it a perennial delight to play, and to hear.

Mozart's Sonata in G Edition Images

Edition features

  • Full score with numbered sections which map to an extensive collection of practise routines
  • Practice routines break down each of the challenging spots, providing exercises to help you to master all the technical and musical details from the outset
  • Reduced score illustrating the large-scale rhythmic structure of the movement’s exposition showing the measure groups (phrase lengths) and hidden meter changes beneath the music’s surface detail
  • Glossary of general practice methods to help learning a new piece more effectively
Creative Practice Methods for Mozart's Sonata in G

This new edition can be purchased separately from our store here or as part of a combined bundle featuring various works by Chopin, Grieg, Bach, Beethoven and Schumann. It is also included with an annual subscription to the Online Academy.

Please click here to find out more about subscription options or click here to view the series index if you are already a subscriber.

From the Ground Up

From the Ground Up is a series on the Online Academy devoted to learning individual pieces using outlines and reduced scores that help you to practise more effectively, memorise more consciously, and interpret music more creatively.

Each From the Ground Up edition starts with a reduced score or foundation which reveals the essential structure of the music. Detail is then added in layers through successive scores thus enabling learning a piece from the ground up rather than the top down. Please click here to find out more about From the Ground Up or on one of the following links to view the available editions: