Classical Music

‘I’ve been trying to play Mozart for 60 years. On this, my last recording, I think I’ve finally cracked it’ | Classical music

Who was it who said that two of the most fascinating things in life are sex and the 18th century? Certainly for lovers of classical music it is a century of quite extraordinary riches: beginning with the late baroque joys of Bach and Handel, overseeing the rise of opera, the sonata, string quartet and symphony, witnessing the entire classical movement, and ending with a bang with Beethoven.

Born smack in the middle of that century, in 1756, was one of the most intriguing and mysterious of all those marvellous composers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. A child genius of extraordinary powers, he lived to write more than 600 works in all the possible genres before his tragically early death at 35. If Joseph Haydn led the march into the classical period, it was Mozart who for us perhaps most typifies it. His music’s extraordinary blend of courtly grandeur, impish humour and sheer beauty takes our breath away. The unending flow of melody, the total command of atmosphere, character, structure, counterpoint and orchestral colour take command equally of our emotions and our minds. We are in the world of the sublime.

Listening to Mozart’s music makes it seem quite easy. Some of it indeed does have a childlike simplicity. But in fact it’s incredibly difficult to play well. The short span of only 50 years that the classical period lasted (the romantic by contrast lasted 100, and the baroque 150 years) seems to demand the strictest stylistic niceties in the entire repertoire. There’s a self-consciousness about the music that results from a heady set of conflicts: late aristocratic society versus the Enlightenment; a brand new popular music versus its late baroque parent; the composer as servant (Haydn wore a light blue uniform for 30 years) versus the self-employed genius (Mozart in Vienna in the late years).

I’ve tried to play Mozart well for 60 years now. When I started I had little clue. How fast should it go? (There are no metronome marks as in Beethoven.) What kind of sound? What note lengths were implied by the various editions? But by 1970, luckily for my generation, help was at hand. In the well developed early music movement we were already using original instruments and contemporary sources to transform our understanding of the baroque. After enjoying the fruits of that revolution for several years, playing Bach and Handel in a way that finally made sense, it seemed obvious to me that the same sort of evidence could equally be used to explore the classical period that followed. Like many of my interested violinist friends I dusted off my unread copy of Leopold Mozart’s Violin Treatise (published in the year of his son Wolfgang’s birth) and found: gold dust. Here was a detailed account of how Mozart had been taught the violin, and of music in general.

We found that there were lots of other contemporary sources to explore, and there were now all these excited young players with the period instruments of Mozart’s time in their hands. We could start to experiment, to follow the traditions of the 18th century instead of those of the uninformed and perhaps unsuitable 20th. The results were startling. If we played with historical evidence the music sounded not more ancient, but newer, fresher, more delightful. I decided to reexamine every single aspect of Mozart’s performance practice.

To start with, using period instruments seemed crucial. They changed one’s mindset, and taught us all things about sound and style. Lighter bows made for more adventurous, differentiated, articulations. A sweet, non-vibrato sound was natural to them; instead of modern wobble, gesture became more central. The woodwind instruments were clearly more different from each other, the horns lighter, the trumpets more brilliant, the timpani more incisive. In the small size of Salzburg or Vienna court orchestras, with the two groups of violins sitting (or standing) opposite each other, the balance between all the instruments was fascinating.

But in time I realised that everything we learned from period instruments could in fact quite practicably be transferred to so-called modern instruments. It was the brain that needed rewiring, not just the strings.

‘If we played with historical evidence the music sounded newer, fresher, more delightful’: Roger Norrington conducting in 1968. Photograph: Reg Wilson/Shutterstock

The crucial factor was always tempo – the speed of the music. Two hundred years is a long time ago. The language, and the intention of music, changes as society changes. Modern audiences sit back and relax: 18th-century audiences liked to get up and dance. So although there is plenty of fast music in Mozart, carefully regulated by his tempo markings (allegro molto, meaning very fast, or allegro moderato, meaning moderately quick, and the like) there is very little really slow music. Andante doesn’t mean slow, but “onward moving”. Adagio – as in Mozart’s day – still means “easy”, not slow. Lento does mean slow, but the word doesn’t appear in any movement of any Mozart symphony or concerto.

I have recorded quite a few Mozart symphonies, concertos and operas over the years, but not the five glorious violin concertos. So when Francesca Dego asked me if we could make two CDs of them I leapt at the opportunity. Here was a brilliant young virtuoso who actually wanted to take on board all the historical playing style that I had been researching for so long.

For a regular concert performance a conductor generally meets a soloist briefly and then accompanies her (or him) in a temporary partnership. But for our recording project we could spend many hours preparing, reimagining sound, speeds, phrasing and decoration in great detail. Francesca absorbed every single thing I suggested, and made it entirely her own. In turn I was thrilled with her playful mastery, the freshness and youthfulness of her approach.

Looking for an orchestra that could match this playing style, we were very lucky to find the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. I wanted only a small group of 24 players: the size of Mozart’s band in Salzburg. The strings would sit tightly together in the centre, and the wind and brass stand in a circle around them.

Norrington Dego Mozart Violin Concertos CD
Photograph: PR

We couldn’t have found better partners. All stylistic details were pursued: bowing; note length; staccato and alla corda; gentle trills starting on a long upper note; urgent and elegant phrasing; and bright tempi. These two CDs will doubtless be the last I shall make, after several hundred in so many various genres. I couldn’t be more happy with them. The elegant bravura of Mozart’s galant style makes it extremely demanding to play perfectly. This time I feel we came near to my ideal.

Francesca Dego, Sir Roger Norrington and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s new recording, Mozart: Violin Concertos, Vol. 2, is out this week on Chandos.

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