We’ve asked 10 top performers to tell us about the great composer’s works that inspire them the most.
Sir Neville Marriner (conductor)
The fact that the Requiem was unfinished by Mozart has always rather touched my imagination. Amid the chaos of his life, the destitution and the pressure of his operatic obligations, harassed by overwork and gravely ill, he produced music of such intensity – that he left it incomplete makes it all the more affecting.
With the day of judgment, hope for salvation and so on expressed in somewhat austere operatic idioms, it is music of such dynamism that you can understand its place in the heart of most Mozart lovers, and ultimately forgive those composers and editors that have tried to become part of this work with their additions and subtractions. The fabric of the work is the essence of Mozart.
Julia Fischer (violinist)
Piano Fantasy in C minor
All the minor key pieces show the real drama of Mozart. It counts for Don Giovanni, the G minor Symphony No. 40, the second movement of the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, the A minor Piano Sonata. For me, Mozart’s C minor Piano Fantasy is a fantastic example.
He’s the only composer who changes so dramatically when you go to minor. Schubert is very sad in major keys while Beethoven can be very dramatic. When Mozart starts a piece in a minor key, you know it’s going to be a talk to God – something very philosophical. It makes me sad all his violin concertos are written in major keys.
Dame Mitsuko Uchida (pianist)
Piano Sonata in C minor
The C minor Piano Concerto, K491 has such a mysteriously, bleakly dark grandeur. The Concerto has the entire set of winds and he uses their different emotional colours extremely cleverly.
That bleakness in the first movement comes from the flute, which gives me shivers every time I hear it, while there are those wonderful, almost warm-sounding clarinet sections in A flat major in the slow movement and then – the most amazing moment after all the darkness – the way the C major variations begin in the oboe in last movement.
To me, it’s clear he wrote the Concerto’s opening by twisting around the opening of the Fantasy in C minor – it is so haunting and shocking. The whole piece is so inspired.
Sir Thomas Allen (bass-baritone)
The Marriage of Figaro
I could choose dozens of works, but The Marriage of Figaro probably inspires me most. It’s an extraordinary piece which moves from one glorious moment to another and is also such a complete artistic entity
The study of the characters within it is lifelong – you can explore them again and again and always come up with variations in the results, partly depending on the chemistry of who’s involved in each production.
Aside from the two great baritone roles of Figaro and the Count, Susanna is so richly drawn, and the study of the countess – her greatness, her sadness and the reassurances that she needs – is extraordinary. It isn’t just a comic work, either. There’s also a tragedy and depth to the premise of its plot, too.
Barbara Bonney (soprano)
‘Et Incarnatus Est’ from Mass in C minor
The most obvious choice for me would the ‘Et Incarnatus Est’ from the C minor Mass – it’s one of the hardest pieces that he wrote because it demands so much tranquillity and so much sense of confidence.
It’s really a very naked stand-out-there-in-front-of-the-audience piece – you have to really sing it like an instrument. But it’s also one of his most beautiful pieces, very much like ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’, Pamina’s aria from The Magic Flute.
It’s very bare and very gentle and open and there’s nothing to hang on – except your nerves! You have to have very good control of breath and pitch. It’s a tour de force in a very sweet and lilting way.
Imogen Cooper (pianist)
When I first heard the String Quintets I was completely blown away. They have remained a central inspiration for my own Mozart playing since – the G minor, C major and particularly the D major.
Hearing the slow movement of the D major Quintet, a wonderful movement in G major, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I’d never heard such perfection. That can sound a cold, arid word. But he’s not that – Mozart is a mixture of humanity and divinity.
It’s sort of god-like but it’s completely human in that there’s every emotion. There’s wit, humour, naughtiness, grief. But these are only words. What is behind it is just… well, you see, I’m lost for words.
Sir Roger Norrington (conductor)
I find Idomeneo very inspiring – after writing several operas as a boy, including Mitridate, Mozart suddenly started writing one as a man. He’d certainly grown up in the intervening years – he’d lost a good friend or two, he’d lost his mother in Paris. He’d also got away from his dad.
So he was on his own, and he was free, and he started composing in an extraordinarily creative and new way. He learned so much about writing opera and now he’d learned so much about himself – and he poured it into this piece.
It’s a very special opera – with the revelation of the human heart from each character in turn and then together in a fantastic quintet in the last act. It’s an amazing moment. It’s an opera that makes you sit up from the word go and tells you so much about human nature, almost as if Mozart was saying ‘yes, I know what to do now – I’ve got it.’
Andrew Manze (violinist & conductor)
Symphony No. 41 ‘Jupiter’
I first heard Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony (No. 41) as a boy and always enjoyed it. But then I conducted it for the first time. I’d prepared the score, knew it very well, rehearsed it well too… and then in the concert it just hit me what an incredible piece this is – that finale with the fugue going on and all the melodies combining at the end.
I was almost in tears because of the power, the perfection and the humanity of the music. In conducting terms, I was almost speechless. You can appreciate Mozart, admire him, study him, perform him a lot, but in the end there’s something about his music that just goes beyond words and analysis. It hits you deep down, in a place not so many composers can reach.
Jane Glover (conductor)
Cosí fan tutte
Like being asked ‘What is your favourite play by Shakespeare?’ it is almost always the one that you have most recently seen. However, I would have to say Cosí fan tutte. Out of all the operas and indeed, all of Mozart’s music, it is the one that does still constantly uplift, inspire, amaze and challenge me.
Certainly in performance, but also when listening to it too, it still moves me to heights that are completely stratospheric. As a performer, my most memorable concert was of the Requiem – at midnight, 5 December 1991, the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s death, I conducted the London Mozart Players at St Paul’s Cathedral. It finished at 12.50am, exactly when he died. That was an extraordinary event.
Jonathan Cohen (conductor)
The Marriage of Figaro
You have to head to opera to distil everything that Mozart is about, so I’d choose The Marriage of Figaro. As one of the great melodists of all time, Mozart had an incredible theatrical nature that you can see in the operas and chamber music.
This opera is the epitome of that – there are characters in the orchestra pit as well as on stage. Everyone’s running around fast and having fun. Mozart had some difficult times in his life, but when he’s happy, there’s no one more joyful.
When I seriously studied The Marriage of Figaro, I started to appreciate its brilliance. To sit down and get inside a piece like this is a beautiful moment.
This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of BBC Music Magazine