240 Hours, 22 Pounds: A Mammoth Mozart Box Set Aims At More Than 'Complete'

Oct 27, 2016
Originally published on December 13, 2016 9:14 am

What are you doing for the next 10 days? That's how long it would take, without sleep, to listen to the new Mozart edition. The mammoth set, which some are touting as the biggest box set ever, claims to hold every note of Mozart's music and then some.

Released to commemorate the 225th anniversary of the Austrian composer's death, the box is dubbed Mozart 225: The New Complete Edition. Inside the 22-pound box are 240 hours of music (on 200 CDs, 30 of which feature alternate performances), two hardback books (a biography plus a piece-by-piece commentary), frameable Mozart prints and an updated Köchel catalogue, the intricately numbered directory of Mozart's music.

Cliff Eisen, author of the set's biography, is one of the key players behind the enormous box, which sells for about $400. A Mozart scholar and professor of music at King's College in London, Eisen spoke with NPR Music about the new edition and the life of the beloved but sometimes misunderstood composer.

Beyond Mozart's beautiful combinations of sounds, Eisen says he finds the music remarkably expressive. "The ebb and flow of the feelings and expressions," he says, "are so intense and concentrated and, at the same time, so honest about our day-to-day lives that the music is something that you can project yourself into."

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tom Huizenga: We've already had a giant Mozart box set 25 years ago on the Philips label. I suppose the obvious question, is why do we need a new one?

Cliff Eisen: There are a number of differences between our box set and 1991 Philips set. We've included a lot more music, including unfinished pieces by Mozart, some sketches and a number of early pieces that have never been released on commercial recordings before. The other thing: People's listening habits and preferences have changed remarkably in the last 25 years.

The period instrument movement — performing the music on instruments of the composer's time — seems to have changed our understanding of Mozart's music.

Not only has the period instrument movement become the norm for the performance of the late 18th and early 19th-century music, but also, traditional orchestras have moved more in the direction of period instrument orchestras. They're taking over some of the results of historical performance practice research, like tempos, articulation and just the general sound being lighter and cleaner. So we're already in a kind of post-period instrument, hybrid way of listening. And that's reflected in the set by our inclusion of both period instrument and traditional instrument performances.

The early days of period instrument performances, I think most people now find those a bit dry and under-expressive, just because the idea was we would stick to exactly what's on the page. But as time went on and as people mastered period instruments, it was realized that this music could be much more expressive. Also just the sound. I think there was a realization that all of the instruments shouldn't blend so homogeneously the way they do in traditional orchestras. And so traditional orchestras have found ways to make individual groups of instruments, like woodwinds, sound different.

Does it make Mozart sound like a more daring, innovative composer now that we have a couple decades of historic performance practice behind us?

That's certainly the way I hear it. And I hear it that way because of my firm belief that a tremendous amount of what's being communicated is actually on the surface of the music. It's not the deep structures that are communicating to us. It's the sound that's on the surface. And that becomes alive in various ways. Then the really tricky stuff that Mozart does simply sounds more clear. It grabs your attention more.

Who's going to buy this huge set? Who is it aimed at?

I think that anyone who's really serious about their Mozart ought to buy it because it's actually a real bargain. But I also see it as a resource. I would hope that institutions would buy it, whether they're libraries or academic institutions. You get the whole history of Mozart performance and Mozart's compositional activity, including all kinds of things that have never been recorded before. When we started planning it, I did think of it already as being this kind of universal resource that someone who's really interested in late 18th-century music, or Mozart in particular, or music education, would find worthwhile.

Still, with all its completeness and all its alternate performances and recent discoveries and rare recordings it's still a pretty old-fashioned box set. Instead of being 200 CDs and books and frameable prints, why isn't it a 10-terabyte hard drive with on-screen simultaneous comparisons of performances, interactive scores and virtual reality experiences? Can you see that happening at some point?

At some point; I don't see it now. It may well be that this kind of venture is geared at old Luddites like me. You know, I like my CDs. I don't want to stream everything. I don't want to play everything through my computer.

I can see where this could evolve into the kind of thing that you're talking about. And it would be fabulous because I've done a couple of online Mozart projects, [including] an edition of the letters Mozart and his father wrote while they were in Italy between 1769 and 1773. The amount of ancillary material and visual material that I was able to bring in, it makes the letters come alive.

I assume you've heard all the music in this set.

I haven't listened to the whole box set yet but I have, at one time or another, looked at or heard all the music that is included.

Is there something that you're most proud of that's included here in the set?

I'm very partial to Robert Levin's recordings of the Mozart piano concertos, which I think are great. I'm also really very fond of the opera performances by Arnold Östman from the Drottningholm Court Theater because he seems to have quite an interesting, flexible view of 18th-century declamation.

What is it about the Levin recordings that you like?

Bob is kind of one of the most sensitive players I know. We've talked about these performances for a long time. He's so thoughtful about what we think are the really important aspects of Mozart performance, which is that Mozart is so attentive to detail. I mean, if you look at his scores, it's very remarkable the extent to which he has notated — and again, I'm going back to the surface of the music. He noted the articulation for example. I'm sure that someone like Mozart thought, "If I'm playing a chord, this isn't just a chord." You know, this chord has a certain weight depending on its context — whether it's accompanying, whether it's a bold, aggressive gesture that's meant to point to a specific moment in the piece. And Bob thinks about those issues very deeply. And so he's very careful to weight the voices that he's bringing out. And that's why it's tremendously expressive.

You point out in the biography that comes with the box set that Mozart began composing just after the age of five. His very first compositions, little piano pieces, are included in the set. And how good are these early pieces?

Well, to be honest with you, they're the pieces of a remarkable five-year-old who was copying models that he has in front of him. They do show signs of imagination. I'm being really honest here, and I probably shouldn't because it almost sounds a little sacrilegious, but if you had a choice between listening to Mozart's early piano pieces or the G minor symphony I don't think there's any question which you would take. The early piano pieces appeal to our sense of the history of this genius.

So when do we get a real Mozart breakthrough in his compositions?

Your question is a really interesting one because there have been various ways of thinking about Mozart — even some models about artistic development that date back to the 18th century. The model is: apprenticeship, maturity and old age, which is either a summation or a decline.

My view is somewhat different. My view is that there's more continuity in Mozart's musical imagination over the whole time of his career. It's more linear and not so easily pigeonholed according to these kinds of traditional categories. So you do find really — they're small but they're strikingly original – little moments in the early pieces, especially by the time you get to the early 1770s in the opera that he writes in Italy — especially the third one, Lucio Silla. Then the symphonies he composes in Salzburg, just after he's back from Italy, are already showing a very distinctive voice. It's not the same voice that he was to use in, say, Munich in 1780 for Idomeneo and it's absolutely not the same voice that you find the music of Vienna in the 1780s. But I don't think that that's the point right? Because artists change. Artists develop.

By the early 1770s there is a distinctive voice in play that becomes more distinctive and changes, as we should reasonably expect, over the course of the next 20 years.

One interesting point you make in the biography is that outside the fact that Mozart was a musical genius, he lived a relatively normal 18th-century life. And then you go on to say what is unique and different is his music. So what was different about Mozart's music in his day?

I could point to technical things – the spectacular use of complicated harmonic progressions, the beautiful combinations of sounds, and the scope of the pieces. If you listen to just the opening of the E-flat symphony, Köchel 543, or the Prague symphony, these pieces seem to open a window on a kind of infinity. They're enormous and they're complicated and expressive and they're so incredibly variable as they move from expressive gesture to expressive gesture or state of mind to state of mind within the space of a few bars. They're so all-encompassing.

By today's standards, Mozart's music doesn't necessarily sound so radical. But how do you think our image of him has changed over the years?

If you want to talk about radical, I do have a kind of idea: I think that in Mozart's day, Mozart's music was as radical as Beethoven's late music was in his day.

But then of course, the way history seems to have worked — is the enormous impact of Beethoven. Beethoven becomes the touchstone. And anything that's not Beethoven is "less than," in a manner of speaking. And that's blinded us to hearing more Mozart, or even Haydn or whomever, in their own context and hearing how outrageous their music was at the time. We have this grand narrative of music history that's kind of a progressive, "great man" type of history.

So what does Mozart's music have to offer us today?

Now of course, my answer to that is a very personal one. I'm very partial to just the sounds that Mozart creates. But I'm also extremely attracted to the idea that the ebb and flow of the feelings and the expressions are so intense and concentrated, and at the same time so honest about our day-to-day lives, that I think the music is something that you can enter into, you can project yourself into it.

Mozart in any movement is so wide-ranging in the types of expressive gestures that he touches on, and the juxtapositions. I'm teaching a Mozart class this term and one of the things I try to get at is that he starts somewhere that's absolutely graspable and stable, and he gradually works his way to some kind of opposite and expressive pool. And when you reflect back on it you really have to say, "Wow, I have no idea how I got from here to there." Is there really a sense of resolution here, or is this kind of the actual fluctuation of our states of mind in real life?

A set this huge, with 200 CDs and all these extra performances, is a little bit daunting. Where should someone start if they are new to Mozart's music?

I would certainly begin with the Viennese music. If I was partial to opera, I'd begin with Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni. I'd absolutely listen to all of the piano concertos — well, at least a batch of them, K. 482, 488 and 491. I'm also very partial to the last three string quartets and the last two string quintets.

Mozart was just 35 when he died on December 5, 1791. He had just completed two operas, The Magic Flute and La clemenza di Tito, and most of his Requiem. Are there any signs of where Mozart's music would have gone had he lived longer?

Yes and no. I mean, there's a big biographical issue here, which is that people would like to fantasize about if Mozart had lived longer, what would Beethoven be, for example? What would music history have been? Because Mozart could've lived another 35 years, which is almost through Beethoven's lifetime. So it's really hard to answer that question without kind of dipping into the "what-if" kind of biographical speculation that I'm not sure is useful. But from my perspective, I perceived that there was a fairly radical shift in Mozart's aesthetic in the last three years of his life, which I discuss in the biography when I talk about the late music.

If you listen to the music of the early 1770s, the symphonies. and then you listen to Idomeneo and then Don Giovanni and the C minor piano concerto, then you listen to late chamber music — you're dealing so clearly, to my mind, with a changing artistic personality. The only projection I would feel confident making about Mozart's post-1791 music, if he had gotten there, is that it would be different again.

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