As Mozart's anniversary year draws to a close, we're getting a sudden starburst from that relative newcomer to the Mozartian ranks - the young British pianist Leon McCawley. He plays Mozart's Coronation Concerto, with the Opera North orchestra, in Dewsbury on Thursday, and is basking in critical acclaim for the Mozart sonata recordings he has just released through Avie. But I catch him just after he's been to the funeral of a leading Mozartian from an earlier era, the Russian pianist Nina Milkina, who was McCawley's mentor from when he was 16.
"She helped me not to be afraid of Mozart's music," he explains. "People often say that they feel exposed and vulnerable playing him, but she helped me to enjoy it, to savour every note. The phrase that she used was, 'Taste the keys', and when you heard how she played, with the sound so pearly and everything having a different nuance and colour, you realised the truth of that."
Not being afraid means that he has felt free to bring out the humour, he says. "So often, Mozart's music is put in a box marked 'fragile', it's just taken too seriously, and its operatic quality also needs to be brought out. But the structure of each work is so strong, there's so much going on despite the small number of notes, and that's the challenge. The mood can change, and change again, in the space of seconds."
Mozart didn't regard his sonatas as his magna opera, but that, in McCawley's view, is part of their charm. "He composed them between major works, for his pupils and for himself to play in public. He loved being at the piano, and you can feel that."
The Coronation Concerto, meanwhile, was popular in its day, but is seldom performed now. Why? "It's full of chromaticism, constant changes of harmony. But it's incredible fun, and there are very few dark moments - the clouds always roll away."
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