A Mozart evening with Trevor Pinnock and Maria João Pires

10 Oct 2008

Berliner Philharmoniker
Trevor Pinnock

Maria João Pires

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
    Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K. 183 (23 min.)

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 9 in E flat major, K. 271 “Jenamy” (36 min.)

    Maria João Pires Piano

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
    Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550 (34 min.)

Only two of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s symphonies are not in a major key, and in both of these cases the composer chose G minor. In order to distinguish between them easily, they were given the nicknames Little and Great G minor Symphony, not only because the composition written fifteen years later lasts longer and is scored more opulently but also because it is one of the best-known and most popular works of classical music. Trevor Pinnock, one of the foremost exponents of the English Early Music movement, conducted both works at his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

The majority of Mozart’s symphonies date from the composer’s youth; only four works of this genre were composed during the last ten years of his life. Of the last three, which were written under circumstances that have not been fully clarified to this day and were completed during the incredibly brief period from July to August 1788, the Great G minor Symphony is the middle work, between the E flat major and Jupiter Symphonies. It opens, without introduction and above an animated quaver accompaniment, with the first theme, which is characterized by a striking leap of a sixth. Uncertainty, despair, even tragedy can be heard in this work. Mozart composed his Little G minor Symphony, which Pinnock conducts from the harpsichord in this performance, at the age of 17. Due to its tonality, it differs clearly from the entertainment character of many works of this time and because of its experimental style is regarded as an example of Mozart’s Sturm und Drang phase.

The E flat Piano Concerto K. 271, which owes its nickname Jenamy to the composition’s dedicatee, is also one of the most unusual works from Mozart’s earlier years. The orchestral introduction is immediately interrupted by the first entrance of the solo instrument, and the Andantino is the composer’s first concerto movement in a minor key. The Brazilian pianist Maria João Pires, who was born in Portugal, has appeared several times as a Mozart interpreter in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker and on this occasion as well gives an impressive performance with her unpretentious and sensitive playing.

Three Mozart Masterpieces

When the 17-year-old Wolfgang Amadé Mozart completed his G minor Symphony K.183 in 1773, the lion’s share of his symphonic output – in statistical terms – already lay behind him. That he created so few symphonies (but what symphonies!) in the following years was no doubt related to Mozart’s increasing separation from his native city. What began as an “inner emigration” soon took the form of an extended trip to Paris and, finally, an acrimonious break with his employer, Salzburg’s prince-archbishop.

It was in Vienna, during a 1773 visit, that Mozart got to know Haydn’s minor-mode symphonies in the pre-Romantic style known as “Sturm und Drang” (“storm and stress”), and it may have been under the influence of these turbulent works that he created K.183, his first symphony in a minor key and a work of stark dynamic contrasts, angular melodies and unprecedented vehemence. The Mozart expert Stanley Sadie has written that the “Little G minor” (so nicknamed to distinguish it from K.550, the symphony in the same key of 15 years later) may be claimed as his “first ‘great’ work”, his earliest one for modern listeners “to enter the realms of serious human feeling”. Even the slow movement, in E flat major, provides little relief from the work’s prevailing stormy character.

If the “little” G minor Symphony of 1773 was his first great work, the Piano Concerto in E flat major, K.271, composed in autumn 1777 in Salzburg, shortly before he left on his Paris journey, can fairly be called the first work of Mozart’s maturity. Nothing in his earlier orchestral music approaches the sheer size, brilliance and structural mastery of this boldly innovative concerto, written for Louise Victoire Jenamy (her name, formerly thought to be spelled “Jeunehomme”, remains associated with the work), daughter of a famous French choreographer and wife of a prominent Viennese merchant. Already in the first movement, the piano’s cheeky reply to the orchestra’s opening phrase in the third bar is an unprecedented solo intrusion into the traditional, purely orchestral exposition.

The tragic pathos of the C minor slow movement, especially in striking passages that suggest operatic recitative, reveals a depth of feeling and a degree of complexity previously unheard of in a concerto. And Mozart reserves one of his biggest surprises for the middle of the virtuosic finale, suddenly introducing a minuet as the rondo movement’s second episode, music of a completely contrasting character, in a new key and a new metre. Throughout this thoroughly remarkable, pathbreaking concerto, composed in the month of his 21st birthday, Mozart heralds the increasingly elaborate, individual style of his later masterpieces in the genre.

The “big” G minor Symphony K.550 is the only other one of Mozart’s contributions to the form not in a major key. It forms part of a matchless final triptych of symphonies, including the E flat K.543 and C major K.551, familiarly known as the “Jupiter”, composed in the summer of 1788 and intended for a concert series later that year which apparently failed to materialize. After moving to Vienna in 1781, Mozart had at first concentrated his creative efforts on opera and, especially, on piano concertos, for which in his new circumstances as a free-lance musician he clearly had greater need than for symphonies. His return to the symphonic genre may well be related to its increasing prestige in the mid-1780s, but whatever their inspiration, the perfection and diversity of these three works, the culmination of Mozart’s achievement as a composer of symphonies, is nothing short of miraculous, and all the more, given how quickly he wrote them.

Listeners to the G minor Symphony’s earliest performances, which probably took place only after Mozart’s death, must have been astonished by this work, right from its unprecedented opening: two introductory bars of quietly agitated pulsation on the lower strings, with divided violas, that establish a sense of urgency before any melody is heard. And this urgency is only reinforced when the violins enter with the movement’s short-breathed, seething main idea. Robert Schumann’s description of the symphony’s “weightless, Hellenic grace” seems curious to modern audiences, who hear in it instead what a commentator of our own day, Charles Rosen, has called a “work of passion, violence and grief”. And yet, as Rosen goes on to say, “to reduce a work to the expression of sentiments, however powerful, is to trivialize it ... the G minor Symphony is not much more profound conceived as a tragic cry from the heart than as a work of exquisite charm. Nevertheless, Schumann’s attitude to Mozart ends by destroying his vitality as it canonizes him. It is only through recognizing the violence and sensuality at the center of Mozart’s work that we can make a start towards a comprehension of his structures and an insight into his magnificence.”

Trevor Pinnock started his career as a harpsichordist and became known worldwide as a conductor who pioneered performance of baroque and early classical music on historical instruments. In 1972 he founded The English Concert, which he led for the next thirty years. He now divides his time between conducting, solo and chamber music and educational projects, working with the Royal Academy of Music in London. Numerous engagements as guest conductor with chamber and symphony orchestras around the world include regular appearances with the Freiburger Barockorchester and the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin; he also continues a close association with the Leipzig Gewandhaus and Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. Trevor Pinnock received great acclaim for his production of Handel’s Rinaldo at Opera Australia in 2005. In the last season, Trevor Pinnock appeared on the rostrum of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam; he now gives his debut as guest conductor with the Berliner Philharmoniker. In 1992 Trevor Pinnock was made a »Commander of the Order of the British Empire«.

Maria João Pires was born in Lisbon and was still very young when she received her first piano lessons, making her public debut as a child. She began to study music at the Lisbon Conservatory, before being awarded a scholarship to work with Rosl Schmidt and Karl Engel in Germany. In 1970 the first prize in the Beethoven Bicentennial Competition in Brussels laid the foundations for an international career that was soon to take her to concert halls and recital rooms through Europe, Africa and Japan. She made her acclaimed London debut in 1986, a triumph repeated three years later in New York. Since then she has appeared in concert halls and at festivals all over the world, not least as an outstanding chamber recitalist. In 1999 Maria João Pires summoned into existence an intercultural centre at Belgais in Portugal, close to the Spanish border. The centre is devoted to the training of young artists in all fields of artistic endeavour. In 2005 she founded Impressões d’Arte, an experimental ensemble devoted to theatre, dance and music. Maria João Pires made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1991 and since then has returned on frequent occasions, most recently on 1 May 2003 for the 2003 Europa Concert held at the Monastery of St Jerome in Lisbon, where she performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor K.466.

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