We had the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio here Saturday night playing, among other things, a piece written for them by Arvo Pärt entitled Mozart – Adagio, billed by the composer as a “commentary” on the slow movement from Mozart’s F Major Piano Sonata, K. 280. Pärt extracted some of the dissonances from Mozart’s composition and used them as framing devices for the original work. In effect, 90% of what you heard was what Mozart wrote, with a few interpolations, (using a word I hate, but it fits here) decontextualized.

I was eager to hear the result, because my experience with Pärt is two-sided, with very little in between: I find his works either intensely moving or sadly empty – which I suppose is the risk he takes in striving for utter simplicity. When it doesn’t work, there’s not much there to care about.

For me, this was a piece that fell squarely on the wrong side of the tracks. It was decomposed Mozart, except that description makes it sound a lot more interesting than it was.

The original version of Pärt’s “commentary” dates from 1992, although he’s been revising it continually ever since, even giving the musicians some new adjustments this past week. And therein lies a sad irony – 13 years spent futilely attempting to adorn a piece Mozart probably wrote between lunch and supper.

Disclaimer: I’ve written my own commentary piece on Mozart, which is called Amadeus ex machina, a distillation of the 40th symphony into a 10-minute soundbyte. You can hear an excerpt here (sorry I don’t have a soundfile of the entire piece).

So it would perfectly logical for you to conclude that I can’t hear the value of Pärt’s commentary because I’m too close to my own, which is significantly different in character and purpose.

But when you factor in Pärt’s disinclination to write a piano trio in the first place, the fact that he composed the piece more or less unwillingly, and has spent much of the ensuing years trying to rework it to his satisfaction — I think there’s good reason to believe that he’s not particularly enthused by the results either.

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