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250 Candles for Wolfgang

The Humanist

Once again there is an Anniversary; I have barely gotten through the 179 CDs of Philips’ 1991 compleat Mozart, a splendid highlight of the recording industry as it then flourished. Now there will be another Mozart torrent, even while word also arrives of serious-minded record stores, and labels, too, going out of business. Consider the alternative; a New Yorker cartoon, stuck on my fridge like a memento mori, shows a desert, bleak beyond imagining. The caption: “World without Mozart.”

We grant him a special place — “I hate classical music, except for Mozart, of course” — because of his uncanny take on the human condition and the ease with which this understanding comes through in the music. The great late operas prove this the most easily, but they are not alone. Listen, for starters, to the amazing display of human emotions and reactions in the 20 or so minutes of nonstop interaction that ends the second act of Figaro. The Count, with murder on his mind, thunders forth his menacing octaves; the Countess, quite honestly terrified, dithers in shivering roulades. Then the closet door opens to reveal not the expected philandering Cherubino but the blameless Susanna, and the stupefied Count is reduced to a monotone while the women giggle around him in triumph. On and on the scene proceeds: More people join in, more complex the music grows, with every line a separate, beautifully preserved personage. And while all this is happening, Mozart is also working within the classic framework that involves our listening process with the logic of key change, key return — the design that makes it all work.

Verdi’s operas are full of marvelous character depictions; Wagner’s Ring drew tears, even in those patched-together performances at Long Beach last week. But it is to Mozart that I turn for the sublime equilibrium of musical shape and the power to stir the emotions through the balance of harmony and design. The operas make this power the most accessible because of the words. But it is a power ingrained in Mozart’s music itself, almost from the start of his amazing if brief trajectory. One of the few honest episodes in the otherwise execrable Amadeus comes when Salieri overhears and eloquently describes the slow movement of the Serenade for 13 Winds (361 in Koechel’s chronological catalog of Mozart’s works) and is undone by mingled awe and jealousy. (“I was suddenly frightened. . . . It seemed to me that I had heard a voice of God!”) If ever words have served to describe the process of falling in love with a piece of music, perhaps beyond reason, let it be these.

The Synthesis

You can undergo similar processes in the whole treasury of “wordless operas,” the dozen piano concertos from Mozart’s last years in Vienna, in which, time after time, the interplay between solo piano and orchestra becomes a serious, loving conversation on subject matter too subtle for words. Even more than the symphonies — and the violin concertos, which are works from youthful days — Mozart’s mature piano concertos represent a synthesis between his operatic language and his individualistic orchestral idiom in which the woodwinds of the orchestra take on almost human characteristics. This past weekend, Jeffrey Kahane and the L.A. Chamber Orchestra began their series of Mozart piano concertos, which will run into next year, and on that first concert, the last work — the G-major Concerto, K. 453 — has a slow movement that is a marvel among marvels in this regard. The orchestra proposes a small fragment of a theme; the piano responds with the theme ever so slightly varied; the tone gradually deepens, then lightens; and after eight or nine minutes we find that, unconsciously, we’ve moved to the edge of our seats — as if to connect with every word of a profound overheard discourse with words unspoken but clearly understood.

These marvelous works constitute by themselves a wide-ranging repertory of Mozartian dramatic devices. The March 12 program includes two works whose slow movements are almost too emotionally draining to coexist on a single evening: the C-major K. 467 and the A-major K. 488. The first of these contributed a slow movement to a very pretty if morose Swedish film romance under the name of Elvira Madigan, where it kept getting clipped off in midphrase by a director obviously tone-deaf. The A-major has a slow movement of similarly breath-stopping beauty, a melody for one finger, stark and simple. And on May 21 there is the great E-flat Concerto, K. 482, the most grandly orchestrated of the concertos, in which all kinds of strange and wonderful things happen in all three movements, including a conclusion to the slow movement that leaves you in a “What hit me?” state of mind.

Near the end of his life, Mozart discovered the music of Bach, from manuscripts in the libraries of Viennese collectors, and from his own discoveries on journeys to Bach’s churches in Leipzig. The possibilities of creating drama by ramming lines of counterpoint together in daring and novel ways impressed him deeply, and the parts of the Requiem that he actually completed can lead us to tantalizing speculation as to what his next works would have been, with mastery of contrapuntal devices even more firmly in hand. To me, the last of Mozart’s symphonies, the so-called “Jupiter,” is the real synthesis of his command over the complex musical textures that he gleaned from his contrapuntal explorations. Even before the famous finale, the working out in this exultant, extroverted work is uncommonly rich-textured — the wisps of string tone surrounding the themes in the slow movement, the brass punctuation in the minuet: Could classical orchestration have moved further than this deep, lustrous sonority? Then comes the finale, with its five-part melding of voices, a composer triumphantly staking out his conquest over the complexity of his art.

It didn’t end there, of course. After came the profound sublimity of the Clarinet Concerto and the endearing sublimity of The Magic Flute. And it doesn’t really end then, either. The next Mozart year comes in 2041; see you then.