An Amadeus Affair

Intrigue. Elegance. Drama. Mischief. Romance. Scandal. Humor. Passion. Exhilaration.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is rightfully considered one of the great geniuses of history, a wunderkind turned master who created music of extraordinary variety, beauty, brilliance, and wonder. It goes without saying that the superlative quality and depth of Mozart’s oeuvre inspired this album, yet beyond that we have always been captivated by how adroitly he channeled the human experience through his creations. His music delights the ear, stimulates the mind, and feeds the soul.

This Mozartean affair is a foray into the various musical categories in which he excelled, if not defined. We present Mozart at his best: his operas enthrallingly encapsulate the whims of human nature; his piano concertos are sparkling and sublime paragons of the genre; his two-piano sonata is arguably his finest instrumental sonata. His aesthetic is composed of diametrical opposites, residing in the realm between naturalism and order, innocence and wisdom, lightness and profundity. This seemingly effortless yet extraordinary interplay is what endows Mozart’s music its piquant immediacy and enduring allure. And, of course, Mozart’s affinity for matters of the heart—romance, courtship, seduction, love—makes for a most delicious musical liaison, and inevitably permeates this album. To quote Mozart’s close friend Gottfried von Jacquin: “Love! Love! Love! That is the soul of genius.”

From joy to sorrow...and back

Mozart deftly covers a vast range of moods in his music, often within a single composition. His operas are archetypal—if heightened—examples of mankind’s mercurial desires, errors, and redemption, not to mention the eternal puzzles and pleasures of love. In the opera Così fan tutte, two women bid a bittersweet, heartfelt farewell to their lovers departing by sea (“Soave sia il vento”), only to be mercilessly tricked and tempted by the same men (in disguise!) to hilarious and breathless effect (Grand Scherzo). We encounter a more sober side to humanity (as well as Mozart’s Masonic leanings) in Die Zauberflöte, in which the enlightenment-seeking protagonist Tamino is warned by guards of the trials he must overcome to attain his goal and reunite with his true love Pamina (Chorale Prelude: “Der, welcher wandert diese Strasse voll Beschwerden”). Comedy and drama reach their apex in Don Giovanni, in which the titular character—possibly literature’s most notorious libertine—is seen flirting and reveling in debauchery. Inveterately seeking the gratification of his carnal thirst, Don Giovanni sings at the climax of Réminscences de Don Juan, “Let’s host a great party … and I shall have my fun making love,” until he is fatefully condemned to hell. Our Amadeus was quite a lover himself; a bachelor at the time, he dedicated his brilliant and refined Sonata for Two Pianos to a talented student of his, Josepha von Aurnhammer, who, as rumor has it, was in hot pursuit of the composer. The sonata could conceivably be considered an opera in three acts: the opening movement is full of fanfare and vibrancy; the lovely second movement unfurls poetically and tenderly, with aria-like melodic material—an intimate love duet of sorts; and the third movement is a virtuosic romp, infused with a dash of alla Turcaflair. (Speaking of alla Turca, our Ragtime alla Turca is a rollicking homage to the panache of Mozart’s beloved Rondo alla Turca, originally inspired by the noise-making revelry of Turkish military bands.) Perhaps the emotion that best typifies Mozart’s music is joy, which comes across irresistibly in the finales of his transcendent piano concertos (Duettino Concertante). It bears mentioning that the Duettino Concertante seamlessly fuses many of Mozart’s compositional styles presented on this album, from the weighty to the effervescent: fugal, sonata-rondo-finale, and opera buffa (comic opera) forms all make an appearance.

Reimagining the classics

As Franz Liszt once said, “In matters of translation there are some exactitudes that are the equivalent of infidelities.” We couldn’t agree more. Mozart’s music is so impeccably constructed that a strict replica would somehow fall short of its essential imagination and spirit. Aside from the Sonata for Two Pianos, all of the works on this album are reworkings of his compositions by us and by two legendary pianist-composers, Liszt and Ferruccio Busoni. 

Transcriptions are fascinating in that they can shed new light on the original and provide a window into the persona of the transcriber. If their marvelous transcriptions provide any indication, both Liszt and Busoni relished their encounters with Mozart’s craftsmanship. In Liszt’s case, his fantasy based on Don Giovanni is virtually a self-portrait: the opera’s themes align with his own reputation as a lothario and disrupter of social classes. Finding a kindred spirit in the scandalous, boundary-breaking hero of the opera, Liszt outfits his transcription with pianistic fireworks of dazzling and demanding proportions. Even Busoni himself (the master of technical complexity) proclaimed this work to carry “an almost symbolic significance as the highest point of pianism.” To be sure, the rampant virtuosity reflects and emphasizes the dramatic action of Mozart’s opera. In contrast, Busoni’s Duettino Concertante showcases a considerably more straightforward treatment of its original source (the finale to Mozart’s Piano Concerto K. 459), likely due to Busoni’s tremendous affection for this particular concerto. The transcription retains the lightness and clarity of Mozart’s textures, as well as the form of the original. Still, he takes liberties throughout, integrating, redistributing and reworking the original material to create a balanced, buoyant dialogue between the two pianists. In both of these instances, the spirit of the original works leaps to thrilling life, approach notwithstanding.

Our own compositional relationship with Mozart’s music is appropriately multifaceted, as each piece guides us in a specific direction. Our transcriptions range from structurally literal (“Soave sia il vento”) to irreverently off-the-wall (Ragtime alla Turca). At times we literally embody the narrative and psychological themes of the original works; for example, our four hands are involved in a furiously flirtatious dance upon a single keyboard in the Grand Scherzo, a mishmash of the swirling events that close Act I of Così fan tutte. We also pay homage to the artists whose transcriptions laid the groundwork for our own arrangements; namely our Chorale Prelude from Die Zauberflöte is a direct homage to Busoni’s divine piano transcriptions of Bach’s Chorale Preludes. In each case, we aim to translate the vitality and emotional crux of Mozart’s vision for modern audiences because we believe that his music remains as relevant and illuminating as ever. 

It takes two...

Mozart’s music is ideal for piano duo collaboration; so much of his music is devoted to witty banter and a dynamic musical dialogue, dramatic conflict and resolution, plus a shared vulnerability and sense of play. His music has sparked us to tap into that place of awe and discovery, where inspiration and joie de vivre reign.

Amadeus, you rock us.

— Elizabeth Joy Roe & Greg Anderson