Repertoire choices by pianists – why so little Mozart ?

We keep a detailed archive of works performed at St Mary’s Perivale.  I have performed an analysis on piano works played between 2004 and 2015 – a total of over 500 concerts, with over 200 pianists.  I suppose there have been about 200 half or whole-length solo recitals in that time.  The musicians have a free hand in what they choose to play, although I occasionally ask them to change it if it is exclusively 20th century repertoire, as detailed in a previous blog about the tensions between what musicians want to play and what the audience want to hear.

A summary of  the pianists’ repertoire choices is on http://www.hughmather.uk/repertoire-piano.htm  and makes for interesting reading.  Top of the list is the ubiquitous Chopin G minor Ballade, studied by virtually all pianists, with 13 performances, although I am not sure that any of them have been entirely satisfactory – but that is a topic for another blog !   After that, the major Chopin piano masterpieces and popular Liszt virtuoso works (Rigoletto paraphrase, B minor sonata, Mephisto Waltz, Spanish Rhapsody etc) feature prominently, with several late Beethoven sonatas (Op 101, 109, 111) being performed more frequently than earlier Beethoven works.   Rachmaninov’s Second sonata and Mussorgsky Pictures are also well-represented.   Lower down the batting order, we find Ravel’s Gaspard, Debussy’s Images Book 2 and L’Isle Joyeuse, Schubert’s Wanderer and a cluster of favourite Schumann works.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of this list is ‘the dog that didn’t bark in the night’ – namely the virtual absence of Mozart.  He makes only one appearance in the list, with the Fantasy K475 being played 3 times. Looking at the data again, it transpires that there were two performances of the ‘Ah vous dirai-je’ variations K265 and single performances of 7 sonatas (K283, 310, 330, 331, 332, 457 and 545,) and of the D minor Fantasy K397, to set against all those performances of Chopin and Liszt.  Why is this ?   I doubt whether it reflects the musical tastes of our pianists, since I don’t know (and wouldn’t understand) any musician who doesn’t worship Mozart.  And most pianists, me included, must have bashed their way through most of the sonatas when aged say 9 -12, so they will know them all.  And I think most of our pianists would jump at the chance of playing any of the great Mozart piano concerti, but steer well clear of performing the solo sonatas in public

No, the explanation is obvious, although it will seem strange to non-musicians.  Mozart’s sonatas sound easy, but are extraordinarily difficult to play well.  By comparison, the big romantic works are much easier to  ‘bring off’.  Everything is so exposed – the phrase ‘walking on eggshells’ comes to mind – and problems of balance between the hands, of ‘inner phrasing’ and articulation in the runs, and handling all the trills and turns deftly and neatly, and achieving that rare spiritual balance between purity, warmth and freedom, may be beyond at least some of the pianists who choose Chopin, love Liszt or revel in  Rachmaninov.  These problems are generally more evident in the  sonatas than the piano concertos, where the orchestral support solves some of the balance problems. There don’t seem to be many ‘Mozart specialists’ among the best young pianists around London at the moment.  Perhaps they don’t get so far in competitions.    If I were holding a piano competition, I would make a Mozart sonata a compulsory choice.  Certainly there are no easy ‘plaudits’ for fine Mozart performances, compared with a rousing Liszt rendition, because the audience will assume it is easy – but never mind !   I am hoping we can encourage more musicians to be brave and play the Mozart (and Haydn) piano sonatas in their recitals in future.

Author: hmather@btopenworld.com

Organizer of classical concerts at St Mary’s Perivale and St Barnabas Ealing. Pianist, organist and retired physician

4 thoughts on “Repertoire choices by pianists – why so little Mozart ?”

  1. Thank you Hugh for your fascinating posts. Mozart is so hard for young artists especially if they feel they need to play the big warhorses first! But a wonderful exception is the 22 year old Jordanian pianist Iyad Sughair who plays all the sonatas exquisitely and has also done a particularly touching k491 with Manchester Camerata. Why not listen to him
    here?!
    https://youtu.be/9eAOTBBmnLo

    Best wishes

    Murray McLachlan

    Head of keyboard
    http://www.pianosummerschool.com

  2. “… And most pianists, me included, must have bashed their way through most of the sonatas when aged say 9 -12, so they will know them all. …”

    Well yes – and that is why they are so rarely performed :)

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