Mind over Mozart

Classical byDermot Clinch

Do you like your music to reveal a "state of surrender to an ongoing harmony in the universe that exists with or without us"? Or do you prefer it to keep a hold on reality? These questions are raised by a new recording of Mozart piano concertos - performances of no doubt intended banality - by the pianist Keith Jarrett, whose musical philosophy is quoted above.

The soloist in Mozart's D minor concerto, K 466, is tested from the beginning. Perhaps Mozart was being deliberately difficult. Certainly he was being deliberate: the pianist is left baldly, nakedly exposed. The work begins with seething orchestral syncopations, builds dark, half-lit operatic climaxes and sets a mood of brooding urgency, until the piano drops into sudden calm a sentence of recitative-like plainness. Daniel Barenboim colours the phrase gently. Sviatoslav Richter nudges it urgently. Keith Jarrett pronounces it with grim monotony, deflating the orchestra's entire enterprise thus far.

Why? Why does a great jazz improviser, one of the technically best-equipped of jazz pianists, whose technique in classical piano is not in doubt, do this? Since the 1980s Jarrett has turned increasingly to recordings of the classics - Bach, Handel, Mozart, Shostakovich. He is "a highly intelligent and musical player whose readings can hold their own against the current opposition", according to the Penguin Guide to Compact Discs, whose authors cannot have heard his Mozart. He must have his reasons.

The answer is perhaps that Jarrett is an ideologue as well as a musician. Why else would a musician elect to play the D Minor Concerto's Romance so prosaically as to sound comic? Why else refuse the obvious, gracious delay at the threshold of the theme's return? Why else render Mozart's accompaniments - the Alberti basses in the left hand (click, click) - with ugly super-correctness? So much of Mozart is balanced, symmetrical, weightless, that the question of how much colour and nuance to add is the first the performer asks. Jarrett adds next to nothing.

"This music does not need my assistance," Jarrett has written of J S Bach. He stands in a long, cold line of musicians who have seen musical performance as just a necessary travesty of the work. Artur Schnabel, the greatest, boasted that he played only music that was "better than it could be performed" and Jarrett's philosophy is founded on similar mistrust of the worldly. When he plays Bach - he has recorded the Well Tempered Clavier decently and unshowily - he does not hear music but "almost the process of thought", he says. It is a kind of intellectual idealising that Bach regularly suffers but that Mozart has generally been spared.

It is not possible to capture the quintessence of the real K 466. Even if it were, it is doubtful whether a regimen of notes - notes with nothing of oneself, a retreat into the monkish - would achieve it. Glenn Gould, whose austere spirit and barely concealed contempt for tradition Jarrett shares, played constant games with dynamics, gestures and textures and was the interventionist performer par excellence. Jarrett, by contrast, withdraws from the battle, imposes nothing, and, by attempting to remove Mozart from history, disables him.

Jarrett inserted a little prayer in the notes to an earlier ECM recording of his own serious, if rather wan, compositions. May beauty be perceived in this world, he entreated, despite "fashions, intellect, analysis, progress, technology, distractions, 'burning issues' of the day, the un-hipness of belief or faith, concert-programming, the unnatural 'scene' of 'art', the market, lifestyles, etc, etc, etc". The lists glosses the messy, improvisatory world that we all inhabit and from which the classics, Bach and Mozart, offer Jarrett a refuge. On a personal level this is fair enough. But listen to his new recording. Do you like your Mozart concertos to be a performer's private solace?

Keith Jarrett's recording of three Mozart piano concertos, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies with the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester, is on ECM New Series

This article first appeared in the 14 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kosovo: a rich and comfortable war