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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Finding his inner Mozart

By Norman Lebrecht / January 25, 2006

They began shooting The Magic Flute in English last week at Shepperton, the first opera in years to make it to the big screen. Never mind the English; that is what pays the bills. The film’s chief backer is the British football pools millionaire Sir Peter Moores, who has invested much of his fortune in forlorn recordings of opera in the vernacular.

Maybe he’ll hit the jackpot this time. The project has the brooding Kenneth Branagh as director and a script by Stephen Fry that relocates Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto to the eve of the First World War, the brink of mass destruction. The singers are mostly unknowns – you don’t get Bryn and Renee on a $27 million budget – but the omens are not unencouraging.

The most gripping opera I have ever seen on film was The Magic Flute, sung in Swedish and directed 30 years ago by Ingmar Bergman at his gloomiest – in between Scenes from a Marriage and Face to Face – yet transcending its maker’s mood and the constraints of classical declamation by exploring existential borderlines of darkness and light, a territory that belonged more to Freud’s Vienna than to Mozart’s.

Bergman’s movie (now on DVD) aroused suspicions that there might be more to Mozart than meets the ear, a subtext that would yield spiritual and intellectual satisfactions. Two of the more successful Mozart studies of recent years were written by Freudians, Wolfgang Hildesheimer and Peter Gay. Posters for this year’s Vienna Festival display the two celebrity residents side by side, Mozart for his 250th birthday, Freud’s on his 150th.

The connection is, however, untenable. Freud, apart from a mild affection for Don Giovanni, had no time for music; Mozart, except for unconscious intimations of parricide in the same opera, showed no psychological understanding. Despite Soren Kierkegaard’s famous assertion that Mozart’s Don Giovanni is ‘the greatest work of art ever made’, despite Joseph Losey’s thoughtful film of the opera, there is no sustainable conjunction of Mozart with modernity or the world of ideas.

We risk making ourselves look ridiculous by making too much of Mozart. Ludwig K*ochel, the 19th century cataloguer of his manuscripts, listed 626 completed works. How many of these are masterpieces? Of the 41 symphonies, no more than six – the Jupiter and its immediate predecessors. Of the 22 operas on show at Salzburg this summer, just the Da Ponte triptych – Figaro, Don and Cosi - and the Magic Flute. Of the 27 piano concertos, the two in minor keys and maybe a couple more. Add the clarinet concerto and quintet, the flute concertos and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and you have just about all the Mozart that is worth hearing.

That’s not much of a strike rate in an output of 626, even if you write off the first hundred or two as juvenilia. Haydn, by comparison, can count 40 of his 104 symphonies as lasting successes. All of Beethoven’s nine demand attention. Mozart, beside them, was a workaday composer, turning out pieces on breadline, to deadline, and onto the next.

The former Edinburgh Festival boss Peter Diamand once told me of an inquiry he received from Toscanini in the early 1930s after Artur Schnabel had given a rare performance of Mozart’s last piano concerto, K595. Was it, Toscanini wondered, worth repeating? Few musicians in those days were familiar with more than 20 Mozart works.

The inflation of Mozart into ‘immortal genius’, every note and fragment a gift from God, is the product of contemporary motivates, not all of them angelic. The republic of Austria, to mark its presidency of the European Union, has invested 100 million Euros in Mozart this year, an outlay designed to attract 300,000 extra tourists and raise national pride.

The multinational music industry is gushing forth Mozart, calculating that one in four classical CDs has his name on it and the guy has brand recognition. Classic FM has produced a Mozart disc for babies. What we are witnessing is the rebirth of Mozart as McDonalds: everywhere you look, and always the same the world over. This coming weekend will serve up triple Mozart-deckers and Mozart-lite for weight watchers. I’m loving it....

Finding merit in this tasteless haze is no easy matter for a Mozart sceptic. Among thousands of recordings that have been rushed back into play, the ones that catch the ear are the iconoclasts – Richter in the D minor concerto, Landowska in the E flat major, Dennis Brain incomparable in the horn concertos, Klemperer megalithic in the Jupiter, each of them intent on the work in hand, immune to the Mozart cult.

The traditional way to Mozart is through the works of genius, not the mindless bulk of indiscriminate exposure. No composer has written a sextet as perfect as the one in Cosi fan tutte – or a trio, for that matter. No-one has made listeners smile, as they do in the Haffner Serenade, or chuckle as they do in the Marriage of Figaro. These are the Mozarts to treasure.

But that’s not what we’re told by market research. Heavy polling suggests that most people want to listen mindlessly to Mozart, to sink into a jacuzzi of music. Their professed love of Mozart is an escapist impulse and the Mozart year has been meticulously designed as a denial of reality: a Disneyland for listeners. Get away from it all with the G minor symphony.

Which is why, faced with an onslaught of wall-to-wall Mozart, I revert to Bergman with gratitude and relief. The Swede in all his sorrows found the child in Mozart and made The Magic Flute into a parable of powerlessness, reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz. But there is also a fundamental optimism, a faith in a better world ahead. Of all the Mozart adaptations I have seen and heard, this is the one that makes me want to believe in a Mozart beyond Mozart – a Mozart who absorbed the ideas of enlightenment, as well as the classical techniques. I wonder if Branagh sees that. What we need from Kenneth Branagh and Peter Sellars and all the others who are putting fine minds to Mozart this year is not the formulaic transplant of operas to a different era but the excavation of fears and fantasies, the interpretation of dreams. Surely Bergman was not the only film director to find his inner Mozart.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001