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Classical 101

Landmark Mozart recordings revive the danger and excitement of live improvisation

Pianist and musicologist Robert Levin rehearses Mozart with the Academy of Ancient Music
Academy of Ancient Music
Pianist and musicologist Robert Levin rehearses Mozart with the Academy of Ancient Music

Picture it: you’re at a concert enjoying the world premiere of one of Mozart’s piano concertos. The piano soloist, who happens to be Mozart himself, is dazzling you with superhuman virtuosity, and the power of the orchestra sweeps you away. Suddenly the orchestra stops playing, but Mozart revs up in a breathtaking solo cadenza – tunes and trills garlanding the air, scales sailing up the keyboard so fast you think the piano itself might just take flight.

Even more exhilarating is that Mozart is playing all of this off the top of his head, improvising, making it up as he goes along.

A new recording of two of Mozart’s most popular piano concertos is a reminder of the remarkable dynamism of Mozart’s gift for improvisation. The disc marks the culmination of a 30-year project to record Mozart’s complete works for keyboard and orchestra in historically informed performances that showcase pianist, Mozart scholar and Harvard University professor emeritus of music Robert Levin’s improvised cadenzas. Levin recorded the groundbreaking 13-disc series with the Academy of Ancient Music.

Released this month, the much-anticipated thirteenth volume of the series features Mozart’s late Piano Concertos No. 25 in C (K. 503) and No. 27 in B-flat (K. 595). The disc also includes the concert aria “Ch’io mi scordi di te” (“Will you forget?”) for soprano, piano and orchestra. Soprano Louise Alder joins Levin and the Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) conducted by Richard Egarr. The release of the cycle’s final recordings coincides with the end of the Academy of Ancient Music’s 50th anniversary season, 2023-24.

Levin’s Mozart cycle with the Academy of Ancient Music is a tour de force of artistry and scholarship. The recordings contain many points of interest that other recorded series of Mozart’s piano concertos do not. Some of Mozart’s neglected works for piano and orchestra feature in the series, as do performances on a range of keyboard instruments from Mozart’s day – including Mozart’s own 1782 Anton Walter fortepiano – and replicas of instruments that the historical record shows Mozart knew.

The cadenzas Levin improvised in recording each concerto comprise arguably the most notable element of this recording series. Levin’s improvisations bring back to light an important aspect of Mozart’s genius – the excitement and joy of the solo cadenzas Mozart’s brilliant imagination and nimble fingers could create at the drop of a hat.

“There’s no doubt about it. During Mozart’s high-flying years in Vienna, his compositions, though regarded as complex, were certainly very, very much respected. His abilities as a performer were known pretty much across the continent. But what seems to have created the deepest impression and the most vivid impression was his ability to improvise,” Levin said.

Audiences of Mozart’s day expected a soloist to improvise a cadenza near the ends of a concerto’s movements. Cadenzas were opportunities for an artist to dazzle the audience with bold displays of imagination and technical virtuosity. Most performances and recordings of Mozart’s piano concertos feature performances of the cadenzas Mozart wrote down for his students to master, of those written by composers after Mozart or of those composed – but not improvised – by the soloist.

“When we hear a recording of a live performance of a Mozart concerto, we’re likely to know every note that we’re going to hear, from the beginning to the end, including the cadenza,” Levin said. “So the opportunity to bring back the practice of improvisation as Mozart might have done it … brings us back to a moment when there is a level of risk and uncertainty and excitement because we don’t know what happens next.”

Mozart in Limbo

The feeling of not knowing what happens next could stand as a metaphor for the Levin-AAM recording project itself, the future of which was caught in limbo for some years. The project began in 1993, when Levin, then a professor at the Freiburg Conservatory of Music, received a call from British television producer Jeremy Marre, who was working on what would become a four-part series of programs about improvisation in various musical cultures. Levin told him about the importance of improvisation in Mozart’s musical culture and compositions.

“And I said, ‘get a band together and we do, say, a little bit of a Mozart piano concerto, and we get to the cadenza, I’ll improvise it. And then the orchestra can go back a half a minute and play into the spot where the cadenza happens, and I’ll play a different one. And we can do two or three of them, and people will understand yes, this is actually being done right off the cuff,’” Levin said.

Christopher Hogwood and his “band,” the Academy of Ancient Music, were recruited for the project.

According to Levin, Hogwood contacted his recording company, Decca Records, and pitched the idea to record a disc of some of Mozart’s piano concertos with Levin as soloist with the AAM.

“Those were the days when record companies were flush with cash and adventurism,” Levin said, “and they said, ‘No, we don’t want to do a disc. We want to do them all.’”

Levin, Hogwood and the AAM recorded the first eight discs of the projected 13-disc series in quick succession. Then, a pause. In his study Refiner’s Fire: The Academy of Ancient Music and the Historical Performance Revolution, journalist Richard Bratby notes that the recording project “had spluttered to a halt” in 2001. By that time, recording companies were facing a drastically different economic landscape than had prevailed in 1993, when the recording cycle began.

Pianist and musicologist Robert Levin playing the fortepiano
Clive Barda
publicity photo
Pianist and musicologist Robert Levin

The project lay dormant for years, but all along Levin and Hogwood harbored dreams for its renewal. Hogwood’s passing in 2014 might have ended the project once and for all. Hogwood’s successor with the AAM, Richard Egarr, remained at the artistic helm for 15 years, during a time of ongoing financial uncertainty for the orchestra. The finances of reviving and completing the recording project remained prohibitive.

Pandemic Possibilities

A glimmer of hope for the project appeared in September 2020, when John McMunn came on as the Academy’s chief executive. McMunn assumed that post just as the AAM artistic and administrative staff were discussing how to complete the Mozart recording series to mark the AAM’s 50th anniversary during the 2023-24 season.

McMunn was also hired several months into the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought about massive uncertainty but, ironically, presented an opportunity to revive the recording project. The pandemic had shuttered concert halls and other public gathering spaces worldwide. Shockwaves coursed through performing arts organizations as the financial implications of being indefinitely prohibited from giving public performances grew more dire by the day.

“To avoid the orchestra’s simply dissolving and ceasing to exist, the idea was we’d be wearing our masks and so forth, but at least in the (recording) studio, we’d be able to accomplish something that we might not be able to do in the live concert hall,” Levin said.

The repertoire Levin, Egarr and the AAM would record for the remaining five discs in the Mozart series would feature many of Mozart’s best-loved concertos, including the Piano Concertos No. 21 in C, (K. 467) and No. 24 in C minor (K. 492). They also recorded what is quite possibly the first work for piano and orchestra Mozart ever composed – a solo piano piece suitable to be the solo part of a concerto. That piece appears in Nannerl’s Music Book, the notebook of works that Wolfgang Mozart’s father, Leopold Mozart, composed as instructional pieces for Wolfgang’s older sister, Nannerl, and later for Wolfgang himself.

Conductor Richard Egarr
Marco Borggreve
publicity photo
Conductor Richard Egarr

The final volume in the series contains Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C (K. 503), which Levin describes as “perhaps the grandest of all of Mozart’s concertos,” and the aria “Ch’io mi scordi di te” for soprano, piano and orchestra. The Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat (K. 595), Mozart’s final concerto composed in the year of his death, brings the disc and the series to a fitting close.

As much as the Levin-AAM Mozart cycle puts us into the time, place and improvisatory sound world of Mozart’s day, there is one thing no recording of Mozart’s piano concertos can do – namely, transmit the experience of Mozart himself improvising in real time. But Levin’s recordings might just be the next best thing. Levin says he’s done his best to bring the spontaneity, excitement and joy of live improvisation to recordings that will live on in the way we wish Mozart’s own improvisations had.

“It seems to me that the most important thing about improvisation is that it’s risky, it’s dangerous, it’s exciting, it’s unpredictable,” Levin said. “And I remember some years ago (the noted pianist and musicologist) Malcolm Bilson saying to me, ‘See, the difference between you and me is I’m trying to play these pieces as best as I can, and you’re trying to be Mozart.’ And I said, ‘Well, maybe that’s so. I mean, no one who aspires to be Mozart is going to succeed because this man is one of the greatest geniuses in the history of civilization. But it doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t try.’”

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.