I’ve been a fan of the Academy of Ancient Music since I picked up its performance of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons as a teenager in the UK. Though into rock and prog at the time, I was always trying to expand my learning and would occasionally turn the dial from BBC Radio One (for John Peel, late at night) to Radio Four where I tried to make my way in the heady world of classical music. It was how the album was promoted and sold: you’ve never heard Vivaldi until you’ve heard it on the original instruments! I mean, this tied right in at the time to the advent of CDs (“hear it as the musicians did in the control room!”) and the beginning of “from the original master tapes!” turning up on recordings. I was all in, and it's a thrilling recording.
That thrill never goes away, as demonstrated with the above video of Robert Levin, recently announced as the first Hogwood Fellow of the Academy, playing Mozart on Mozart’s own piano. Or rather, Mozart’s fortepiano, a smaller and much lighter version of the piano. It is two octaves shorter, and only seven feet long.
Mozart used this fortepiano for both composing and performing from 1785 until his death in 1791. He wrote over 50 works on it. The instrument dates to 1782, built by Anton Walter, one of the best-known piano makers in Vienna at that time. In 2012 it finally returned to Mozart’s Salzburg home (now a museum), having been in the possession of the Cathedral Music Association and Mozarteum for the majority of the years since the composer’s death.
“One writes for acoustical and aesthetic properties of the instruments at hand,” Levin says, explaining the Academy’s mission and ideology. Naturally it follows that Mozart sounds the best on Mozart’s instrument. The fortepiano is brighter and jauntier, and can be a revelation for those with the talent and fortune to play it. Levin says:
“So sitting down at Mozart’s piano, sitting down at an organ which Bach played himself, you understand things about the weight of the keys going down and the repetition and the balance in sound. And all of these things bring you very, very close to the music and make you say 'A-ha, that’s why it’s written that way', which is not the kind of thing you’re going to get if you’re playing on the standard instruments that are being manufactured today”
Levin is currently recording Mozart’s piano sonatas on this very fortepiano. The piece he plays in the video is Mozart's Sonata No. 17 in B flat major KV 570 (3rd movement).
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.