Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Secret Mozart

The idea behind Christopher Hogwood's "Secret" series is that some major composers, from Bach to Beethoven, would have used a clavichord at home and for composition. Furthermore, since most keyboard music was intended for "private consumption," they knew that most people playing their works would be playing them on the clavichord, as opposed to the harpsichord or fortepiano. That's well and good: Hogwood is an accomplished conductor and musicologist. Of course, this isn't a new idea. Ralph Kirkpatrick's 1959 recording of Bach's Das wohltempierte Klavier, Teil 1, was done on the clavichord - to great effect. That recording is probably my favorite, followed by Luc Beauséjour's recent outing on the harpsichord.

Before I turn to the CD at hand, I would like to say a few words about historicity and the period-instrument business. Did Mozart compose and play on a clavichord, more than on a harpsichord or fortepiano? Frau Mozart says that he did. However, if more modern instruments were available, would he still choose a clavichord? For that matter, would he compose for a period orchestra, or would he use the fullness of the modern orchestra to make his musical points? Historicity is great, and it does sort of give us a sense what the audiences would have heard and how the composer expected his music to be heard and performed. However, I am privately sure that no instrument or combination of instruments can really realize the visions of these composers, so it's a moot point. Still, we should wonder: would Bach still want his solo violin stuff played on a baroque violin with baroque technique if he saw modernity's answer? Or anyone for anything.

Now, with that prelude out of the way, let's look at the CD. I've listened to it pretty much every day since I bought it. Hogwood's other component of his stated mission is "rescuing" lesser-known compositions from obscurity. He does so, and he manages to bring off the better-known pieces nicely indeed. There is a delicacy to the clavichord, and it makes the pieces exquisite and even brittle. More on that later, though. Let's compare the Klavierstück in F, K.33b, which was made famous in Amadeus (it's the piece he plays for Pope Clement as a child), from Hogwood's disc with Ton Koopman's harpsichord performance. Hogwood makes it a delicious miniature: a youthful musical Mozartkugel. Koopman's harpsichord performance is considerably more muscular. Insofar, it bears noting, as this piece can be muscular. Hogwood's is fleeter, a bit tentative and flighty. That's half clavichord, and half Hogwood. Nothing wrong with his approach, or the instrument, but I am always nervous that Mozart will become "charming."

At the risk of sounding like Anthony Blanche, from Brideshead Revisited, the great potential blight on Mozart is charm. Turning him into a music box accompaniment is, possibly, the greatest crime against Mozart possible. His music speaks across the ages, and it tells of universal truths like love, brotherhood, knowledge, and the rest. He can be incredibly charming, but only when he wants to be. Hogwood manages to stay just this side of a crossover Mozart-the-Cute disc, but he comes dangerously close at times. Like I said, the clavichord is partly to blame. Nothing sounds terribly awesome on that quiet and reflective instrument. Still, there are some limits. Hogwood's performances are beautiful, and I really can't fault the disc in any sense beyond a vague - almost existential - discomfort whenever Mozart gets "nice."

Hogwood should know better, his Requiem is probably one of the most biting, especially in the big moments, on the market. His Confutatis is pretty damned bleak, and his Voca me, sweet in a real sense. Not the vernacular.

Addition: See here for a picture of the album.