Thursday, December 17, 2020

Mozartiana - Michael Tsalka performs works of W.A.Mozart on keyboard instruments of the Classical period

(Design: Alastair Taylor)


Pianist and early keyboard artist Michael Tsalka brings Mozart’s authentic sound world to the listener with his new disc “Mozartiana - Rarities and Arrangements Performed on Historical Keyboards”. Dr. Tsalka has been considering the possibility of recording Mozart works on period instruments for some time. However, what triggered the project was when early keyboard restorer Pooya Radbon informed the artist that he had recently restored a Berner tangent piano (late 18th century) and a rectangular Maucher pantalon (c. 1780), prompting Tsalka to go ahead and record rare arrangements of Mozart’s incomplete works.


The first works on the disc are performed on the tangent piano (Tangentenflügel), an instrument whose strings are struck by freely-moving wooden posts, giving it the advantage of combining the timbres and potential of the fortepiano, the clavichord and the harpsichord, but with more strength than salon keyboard instruments of the time, indeed, serving the new aesthetic demands of the early Classical period. Tsalka actually opens with a work familiar to listeners, the composer’s (complete) Adagio in B minor, K.540, referred to by Alfred Einstein as “one of the most perfect, most deeply felt, and most despairing of all his [Mozart’s] works”. Touching, but not dwelling on the sense of desolation as heard by many pianists playing the work, Tsalka undeniably also gives expression to the work’s positive energy, his adeptly paced playing contrasting the three-chord dramatic interruptions with cantabile passages, highlighting the work’s expressive harmonic progressions, also engaging in ornamenting and interspersing some original transitions.


In 1771, Mozart was present at the decadent and extravagant Venetian carnival, acquiring a taste for the Commedia dell’Arte so closely linked with the Italian carnival tradition. The visit to Venice inspired him to write the ballet-pantomime “Pantalon and Columbine” K.446-Fs twelve years later, in which he played Harlequin, with Aloysia, his sister-in-law (and first love) playing Columbine. Of this pantomime neither score nor script survive, only the autograph of a first violin part. The manuscript, however, includes stage directions, thus giving some clues as to the content of this piece. “Columbine”, meaning "little dove", a stock character of the Commedia dell'Arte, is desperately in love with the cheeky Harlequin, but betrothed by her father Pantalon to a man she despises. She is locked in her house and guarded by the mischievous servant Pierrot. Harlequin and Columbine secretly hatch a plan to escape the house and elope. In this world premiere recording, Tsalka, playing the series of sparkling, spirited miniatures from the completed, edited and arranged version by German musicologist Franz Beyer (1922-2018), provides the listener with fine entertainment, giving the lively, uninhibited tangent piano carte blanche to evoke the exaggeration, coquettishness, pseudo-dramas, humour and, above all, the devil-may-care and flamboyant sauciness that are part and parcel of the Commedia dell'Arte tradition.. 


Then, to pieces written by the very young Mozart. Following a small piece written by the 10-year-old Mozart, Tsalka takes us into the sound world of the fledgling composer, choosing to play excerpts from the 43 tiny, untitled pieces of the Londoner Skizzenbuch K.ANH 1096 (London Sketchbook, 1765) on the pantalon square piano, its marvellously true, rich timbre offering him “a special opportunity to explore the instrument’s ethereal, undamped sonorities”, in the artist’s words. According to some Mozart scholars, the aim of writing these pieces was for Mozart, who had just learned how to use pen and ink, to write down the harvest of his own inspiration without needing help. (Corrections by his father Leopold appear in pencil only.) Tsalka’s playing features not only the young Mozart's joie-de-vivre, his inspiration and invention, but also his curiosity to experiment, as heard in some daring forays into the bountiful medium of harmony. As to the dance forms of the time, we hear the rustic origins of the Contredanse (K15h) and the graceful, swaying of little Mozart’s not-unsophisticated Siciliano in D minor (15u). 


Michael Tsalka returns to the tangent piano to perform pieces from “Mozartiana: Kompositionen des Meister'' (Compositions of the Master), a collection of pieces, several of them miniatures, compiled, edited and arranged for piano by Swiss pianist/conductor Edwin Fischer. Tsalka opens with three small Minuets, all childhood compositions, inviting us to revisit (indeed to reconsider the potential of) pieces we played as very young piano students. He approaches them with an air of freedom, whimsy and some modifications, yet preserving the freshness and naivety of these small gems. More miniatures: K.236 – Mozart’s arrangement of the theme of “Non vi turbate, no”, an aria from Gluck’s opera “Alceste”, c.1782 (did the composer intend it to serve as the basis for a set of variations?), a piano reduction of the programmatic Contredanse in D major “Das Donnerwetter” (Thunderstorm) for orchestra K.534, its uncompromising depiction of the pelting rain punctuated by calmer episodes, and also the totally delectable Romance in A flat major. Then there are the Variations on an Arietta from G.Sarti’s “I Finti Eredi” (originally attributed to Mozart, but possibly penned by Emanuel Aloys Förster). Tsalka’s varicoloured and captivating reading of the work is clearly inspired by the potential inherent in the tangent piano. Mozart’s Fantasia in F minor K.608, composed in the last year of his life, was written for a large table clock that included a pipe organ, the best of those organs being serious instruments, serving music aficionados in Europe’s stately homes. Count Joseph Deym was one such an enthusiast of mechanical clocks. Mozart’s F minor piece, commissioned by Deym, was not originally titled “Fantasia”, but its content certainly attests to the genre. Tsalka’s gripping playing of the piece, disclosing all the trademarks of the seasoned composer, does indeed emerge splendidly at odds with the circumstances of its original performance on a Spieluhr: he gives depth of emotion and expression to its French-style overture, the Andante and the spectacular fugue, the latter a reminder that Mozart had, indeed, studied Bach's music.


In the disc’s liner notes, Michael Tsalka talks of Mozart as a prisoner of the marketing forces of his time, compelling him to write simpler, popular music, hence the composer’s “repeated escapes into the parallel worlds of buffoonery and riddling, freemasonry, opera and the carnival…” The artist is convinced that “Mozart would have been happy to listen to interpretations of these piano arrangements on two marvellous and original historic instruments, restored and revived almost 230 years after his death.”   Recorded for GRAND PIANO (GP849) at the Rochuskapelle, Wangen im Allgäu (Germany) in October 2018, this disc will provide much delight to Mozart lovers and to those of us curious to hear performance of his music on authentic instruments.


Michael Tsalka (Geelvinck Muziek Musea)

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