In conversation: leif ove andsnes and delphine tissot (PART II)

3 December 2020

On the 4th of November, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra should have given the first concert of our Mozart Momentum 1785/1786 tour together with our Artistic Partner Leif Ove Andsnes.

Continuing the discussion between two musicians, (click here for Part I), Leif Ove Andsnes and Delphine Tissot delve deeper into the piano concertos of Mozart and the extraordinary momentum the composer experienced at that time of his life.

Delphine Tissot (DT) We have spent the past few days recording three piano concertos for this new journey, Mozart Momentum. Can you speak a bit about the name? What is it about?
Leif Ove Andsnes (LOA) After 2015 we talked about finding another project. And after Beethoven, the other great composer who one can do wonderful things with in this combination is Mozart. That’s even more natural than Beethoven because his music is less symphonic. It’s more chamber music-like, with so much conversation between soloist and orchestra.

But Mozart has 27 piano concertos and some people said “Do you want to do the whole set like with Beethoven?” I’ve never been somebody who has done a lot of “complete” things. So I thought about what should we do with the Mozart concertos.

The last few years I have liked this idea of taking one period in time and exploring it deeply, taking the works and seeing the life – it becomes more specific. And I was thinking how important these two years, 1785/1786, were in the history of the piano concerto. The concerti from these years are wonderful pieces – that’s the starting point – but there is also something so new happening there at this moment.

Mozart was in such a flow of inspiration. The year before he had written six piano concertos. All amazing pieces. But then we get to 1785 and he writes his first concerto in a minor key, No. 20, the D minor. Maybe this is one reason why this piece turned out so different. He does a couple of very radical things, the most radical being that the soloist enters with completely different music from the orchestra’s. It’s like an individual voice from afar. Or a lonely voice like an individual separate from the “society” of the orchestra. We are not quite at the idea of the soloist playing the “heroic role” from Romantic concertos, but I feel this is the beginning of that idea.

So after Mozart separates the piano and orchestra, it’s clear to me that he thinks “Oh, I really did something interesting here.” Because when he gets to the next concertos, he is always doing it. Thinking about what Beethoven did with this, I mean he must have loved this trick! Every one of the concertos, it becomes more and more surprising. When we get to the Fourth Concerto, he even begins with the soloist. Beethoven loved playing around with this form, but Mozart got there first.

Mozart also expanded the orchestra so much. In every piece from these years there is something new, especially for the winds. The storytelling, the psychological dramas become bigger and bigger, even more operatic.

The development between 1784 and 1786 is so huge. Any other composer would use 15 or 20 years for this. Mozart needed three. This is really the peak, the moment when the piano concerto develops as a genre like at no other point in musical history. That’s why this expression, Mozart Momentum, is so good.

DT The D minor, No. 20, and also the E-flat major, No. 22, are like an announcement of what Mozart would write a few years later. Don Giovanni also opens with a dramatic D minor. And after the E-flat major concerto, I can also hear the tonality of The Magic Flute. For example in the second movement, when there is this dialogue between the flute and the bassoon. It’s so much like The Magic Flute.

LOA Yes, he treats the winds so much like singers there. It’s fantastic.

DT The recording we made was such a gift in the current context. Not so many musicians have the opportunity to play music together at the moment. We had to face something new: the distance on stage. How was that for you? Was it difficult or easy to adapt?

LOA Maybe of all music, this is where you want the least distance. As we talked about, these concerti are so much about conversation, about being close and breathing together. I always loved the intimacy of our setup, to be sitting in the middle with the winds at the end of the piano and the strings so close. So the departure point this time was completely different. 

I have to say, the first rehearsal day was really challenging. That first hour, we were sitting like we were in a Bruckner symphony. So far apart. But for the last couple of days, I didn’t even think about it anymore. It had become so integrated into what we were doing.

I am amazed at how our ears can adjust. Horn players and trombone players are used to playing before they think they have to play. This is part of their profession. String players are not used to this, and when you have to play rhythmic passages completely together when the distance between the desks is so huge it is almost not manageable. But we did it. And I’m so impressed at how incredible this orchestra is in adjusting to new circumstances and new situations. 

DT I remember when we played Beethoven, and I was sitting right in the curve of your piano. The orchestra was so compact. Like a nest. I always had this feeling of being together in front of a fireplace. Something cozy. Now of course it’s not easy. Normally, as a string player, we are two to a desk. Now we are alone. But in the end, I enjoyed it. Where I was sitting, I was almost in the second violins. It was actually nice, and a bit different.

LOA It’s interesting to hear people talk about these differences now. There are even some positive things, like you can hear yourself better than before. Usually you blend so much with your desk partner and the others that it becomes so hard to distinguish your individual sound. I am sure this is a great learning period.

DT We will see each other again in May, when we continue Mozart Momentum on a European tour. And we will record again: two more concerti, Nos. 23 & 24, as well as a concert aria, "Ch’io mi scordi di te?", with Christiane Karg as the soprano. Can you talk a little bit more about Nos. 23 & 24?

LOA No. 22 was the first to bring in the clarinet. Mozart took out the oboe and it created a completely different orchestration, softer, with some new, completely magical sounds. He must have been inspired by that because when gets to a few months later, he writes Nos. 23 & 24, and No. 23 is in A major, which is a key that sounds so incredible on the clarinet. His two great clarinet pieces, the quintet and the concerto, are also both in A major. There’s something about A major and Mozart which has a heavenly atmosphere. It could almost be holy. Such an incredible light. An aura. Unbelievable beauty.

Then we get to No. 24, the C minor, where he combines the clarinets and the oboes. That’s the biggest orchestration we have in any Mozart piano concerto and it’s also the piece where there are more wind solos and ensemble playing than in any other. The D minor, No. 20, is very extraverted dramatic in the first movement, while the C minor is more of an inner drama. So these two minor pieces are very different in that way. The C minor is more complex, so many layers of emotional diversity. So again, we hear the development of what he writes between these two pieces.

Nos. 20 & 21 and Nos. 23 & 24 are written like twin concertos. Written around the same time, they are each such contrasting pieces. It’s clear that he wanted to show very different sides to what he could do with each pair. So it’s very interesting to play these together.

I have one very special experience of playing the second movement of No. 23. There was a memorial concert in 2011 for these terrible terror attacks that had happened in Norway. It was a very heavy atmosphere because you had all the relatives there in the audience. The king was speaking. He was crying. I have never experienced anything like this any other time. And to play this music, it felt like the only thing I could play. That movement has this kind of universal quality, sorrowful and at the same time so comforting. Like Mozart holds your hand and tells you that everything will be okay. I will forever be grateful that this music existed for such an occasion.  It’s unbelievable. Magical. 

Photos: Geoffroy Schied

CLICK Here to read Part I