Listening Closely to Mozart

A decade has passed since the release of their last album together. Now Martha Argerich and Claudio Abbado have joined forces again for two of Mozart’s Vienna piano concertos.

Whenever Martha Argerich and Claudio Abbado make music together, something extraordinary happens. Their recordings of the piano concertos of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Chopin are benchmarks – meticulously thought-out yet also natural, spontaneous-sounding musical conversations.

Ten years after their last recording together comes the artists’ release of two of Mozart’s most spectacular piano concertos, a choice that owes nothing to chance. For one thing, Abbado’s ensemble, the Orchestra Mozart, has been surveying the composer’s works for years; for another, Mozart’s piano concertos radiate the sort of intimacy that both Argerich and Abbado take the greatest pleasure in cultivating: an existential dialogue of notes.

After Mozart was dismissed from his post in Salzburg, he sought to make his way in Vienna as a freelance composer. In so doing, he turned his back on the prevailing conventions and radically expanded his musical palette. One form he particularly enjoyed experimenting with was that of the piano concerto, and the twelve he composed between 1784 and 1786 broke new musical ground. The Concertos in C major, K 503 (No. 25), and D minor, K 466 (No. 20), represent two contrasting milestones of this creative phase. Abbado and Argerich accordingly make no attempt to lump the two together, allowing them instead to to stand side by side, in fragile opposition to one another.   

Mozart never released these concertos for publication, preferring to keep them for a small circle of “music-lovers and connoisseurs”, as he wrote in one of his letters. He also performed the pieces himself in private concerts. They mark the beginning of a new, dramatic musical idiom, one he perfected in his later operas.

The rebellious character of the D minor Piano Concerto foreshadows theQueen of Night in The Magic Flute, and the Requiem – it was written not long before Don Giovanni, which also exploits the demonic key of D minor. In the C major Concerto, with its radical modulations and its allusions to the Marseillaise, Mozart invents a musical parallel to a world heading off the rails – he composed it just after The Marriage of Figaro, in which conventional order and morality are also called into question.

When Martha Argerich and Claudio Abbado performed these concertos at the Lucerne Festival (where they were recorded), the critics reached for new superlatives. In their interpretation of Mozart, these two artists present musical revolutions as if they were the most natural thing in the world. On the one hand, we have Abbado and his Orchestra Mozart, which brings together leading players from great orchestras and outstandingly talented young musicians, and which has placed Mozart’s music in the forefront of its work for nearly ten years; on the other, Martha Argerich, in her first Mozart concerto recording for Deutsche Grammophon.

Perhaps one of the secrets of this recording’s success is that neither  conductor nor pianist regards speech as the key to music-making. “The essence”, Abbado is keen to emphasise, “doesn’t lie in talking or playing. The most important thing when making music is to listen.” It is this idea of listening and reacting, wordlessly finding common ground and almost magically constructing fragile musical worlds, which Abbado and Argerich have put at the heart of their music-making on this recording.