This is undoubtedly the best account of Mozart’s keyboard variations I have ever heard – I say that unreservedly, having listened to all the great and possibly better-known Mozartians. Obviously it is difficult to justify such a claim, but I can only fall back on my own personal method of judgement when it comes to interpretations of Mozart’s keyboard works – the three Ts: Tempo, Technique and Taste. Walter Chodack consistently shows breathtaking mastery in all three, while one generally finds that even the greatest artists will fall down on at least one. With tempo, there often been a tendency to play Mozart too fast in the quick movements and too slowly in the slow movements – the result tends to be a queasy mix of sentimentality and/or vulgarity. With technique, an enormous amount could be said, but in Chodack’s cycle of recordings one particular aspect stands out – the extent to which the subtleties in the left hand, in the lower registers, are so clearly revealed. Devotees of the fortepiano, the early type of piano that Mozart played, will always tell you how well suited that instrument is for giving an even account of upper and lower registers. Modern pianos, with their powerfully engineered lower octaves, can easily submerge and cloud the subtleties in the 18th century bass. Chodack’s playing shows this need never be so. Finally, taste. It is nearly impossible to take a stance on this without provoking derision or anger, so I would simply say that Chodack is one of the rare performers who allows Mozart to speak for himself. There is no unwelcome intrusion of performance-personality here, no cooption of the music for the purpose of self-advancement. That is what constitutes bad taste in Mozart intepretation, and there is not an atom of that here. That is, perhaps, the greatest compliment I can pay Dr Chodack. Anyone who loves Mozart and wants to get to know him better should listen to these recordings. They are as close to the presence as you can get.
Has anyone else noticed a decidedly Venetian flavour in Mozart’s Fantasia in D Minor, K. 397? Of course there is no documentary evidence to support this, since Mozart visited Venice only briefly in 1771, just over a decade before he composed the Fantasia. Nonetheless, the reawakening of a long-dormant concept is not beyond the bounds of possibility, especially with Mozart. If one were to make a Venetian case for the Fantasia, it might go something like this (here, for reference, is a performance by Emil Gilels).
The piece opens with a series of rising arpeggios that unmistakably recall the traditional accompaniment of the barcarole, the Venetian song sung by gondoliers and boatmen. The arpeggio form mimics the ebb and flow of the tide, the rise and fall of the waters, the rocking of the boat. After this, Mozart breaks into a melancholy cantabile melody, of the kind one might readily expect a gondolier to sing at dusk or twilight. After various developments of the opening ideas, interspersed with a few bravura runs that recall a singer’s improvised cadenzas, the piece ends with a cheerful operatic flourish that one could imagine as a soprano aria, composed resolutely in the Italian style for triumphant delivery at La Fenice.
I’m working on setting some suitable 18th century lyrics to Mozart’s score. I would welcome any thoughts anyone has as to how plausible or absurd this little idea may seem.