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Chick Corea's love of Mozart illuminates a new album, 'Sardinia'

Pianist Chick Corea with the Orchestra da Camera della Sardegna in 2018, in a performance now available as the album 'Sardinia.'
Chick Corea Productions
Pianist Chick Corea with the Orchestra da Camera della Sardegna in 2018, in a performance now available as the album 'Sardinia.'

At the outset of Sardinia, a captivating new album with the Orchestra da Camera Della Sardegna, pianist Chick Corea can be heard addressing a concert audience on the Italian island, in 2018. “I wanted to tell everybody that Mozart wrote 27 piano concertos. This one in C minor is Number 24, and some parts of the concerto will be improvised,” he explains. “So: mostly what Mozart wrote, but also improvisation.”

If these words were intended as a disclaimer for wary classicists, Corea knew he was also offering a preview of coming attractions. Throughout his illustrious career, he showed an abiding interest in the classical canon, which he approached with the same inquisitive spirit that defined his far-ranging work in jazz. Sardinia, which places the Mozart concerto side by side with George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, is a testament to that curiosity — and another posthumous grace note from Corea, who died in 2021.

“Rhapsody in Blue,” which he identifies in the concert as a piece born of jazz intentions, brings out a piano performance as rangy and discursive as you’d expect. But the more extraordinary achievement on the album is Corea’s interpretation of Mozart, which weighs creative license against a deep consideration of form. The pianism is personally distinctive but also thoughtfully calibrated, revealing a maturity of expression that had only begun to shine through in Corea’s earlier engagements with this music.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24, K. 491 completed in 1786, turns out to be an ideal vehicle for him. As WRTI’s Melinda Whiting observes in a recent episode of The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert, featuring pianist Inon Barnatan: “The 24th Piano Concerto is one of only two that Mozart wrote in a minor key, and it combines drama, mystery, and eloquent lyricism in a way that seems almost Romantic and certainly ahead of its time.” It happens to be one of two concertos on another fine new album, by German pianist and conductor Lars Vogt, who died of cancer just over a year ago, at 51.

Corea’s fascination with Mozart began as a young musician in the Boston area, but it deepened in adulthood. A collaboration with the august Austrian pianist Frederich Gulda left a lasting impression in this regard; Corea later recorded Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 12 in F major, K. 332 partly as a tribute to Gulda, who had once played him the piece.

But during his initial attempts to engage with Mozart’s music as a soloist, Corea ran into unforeseen challenges. “When I first did it, in 1981, I hadn’t studied Mozart’s harmonic language and voicings enough to feel comfortable improvising within them,” he recalled in a 1998 interview with Ted Rosenthal for Piano & Keyboard. “So I just naturally kind of toppled over into my own harmonic language — which I found was an incredible shock to the audience. People were running out the doors!”

Conductor Simone Pittau, with pianist Chick Corea in the background, performing with the Orchestra da Camera della Sardegna in 2018.
Chick Corea Productions
Conductor Simone Pittau, with pianist Chick Corea in the background, performing with the Orchestra da Camera della Sardegna in 2018.

“After that experience,” Corea adds, “I thought it behooved me to go deeper into the concerto and into Mozart, and I began to look more into Mozart’s music. I learned all of the orchestral parts of the D minor concerto, and I began to be able to improvise within that harmonic framework a little bit more. I decided that was the route I would take with the cadenza, for the purpose of easing the listener in — and easing myself in, as well — and to make sense out of the composition.”

Corea recorded the Allegro section of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466 on The Mozart Sessions — a 1996 album with the The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, led at the time by his friend and collaborator Bobby McFerrin. By comparison, his playing throughout the three movements of Concerto No. 24 — with the Orchestra da Camera Della Sardegna, under the baton of Simone Pittau — suggests a clearer understanding of Mozart’s architecture, and a commitment to inhabiting it fully. The Larghetto section is a prime example: Corea’s ornamentation largely supports the orchestration, so that each flight of departure feels judiciously placed.

Even his comparably daring elaborative work in the third and final Allegretto movement, suffused with trademark turns of phrase, feels rooted in the larger piece. And because Mozart opted not to fully notate the soloist’s part, the subtle liberties in Corea’s playing can be considered a handoff from one genius composer-improviser to another.

That’s one possible take, anyway. If Corea’s performance divides listeners along a fault line, he would hardly have been surprised. “I knew from the beginning that improvising in a Mozart concerto would do exactly that,” he says in the Rosenthal interview. “It’s hard to be on the fence or indifferent about it. You’re either going to like the spirit of wanting to improvise a cadenza with Mozart, or you’re going to think that it’s awfully audacious, and that it doesn’t sound good, and that you should stick to the notes.” Sardinia gives us all the chance to decide for ourselves.

Chick Corea’s Sardinia is available now on Candid Records.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.