Length: 21 minutes
Orchestration: 2 oboes, 2 horns, strings, and piano solo
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: October 11, 1984, Christopher Hogwood conducting, with pianist Malcolm Bilson
Mozart’s infamously abrupt break in 1781 with the imprisoning security of Salzburg opened the door to a bold new phase of his career as he staked his fortunes on Vienna. Those first few years in the European musical capital of the time were still flush with a sense of hope and possibility for Mozart.
This is the context in which Mozart brought to fruition his extraordinary contributions to the genre of the piano concerto. It was his situation in Vienna during the early 1780s that led Mozart to obtain the ideal synthesis of elements his concertos exemplify, allowing him to present simultaneous personae as composer and performer.
We also hear these concertos through the prism of Mozart’s operas to come: like operas, as it were, without singers. In particular, the Piano Concerto K. 449 (premiered March 17, 1784) abounds with a dramatic energy that seems to belie its actual dimensions of orchestration and length. Within the first minutes he introduces a parade of at least five different themes, as if gathering a variety of characters on stage. These mercurial changes set the tone for what is to come as the soloist enters and engages with the ensemble – at times completing its phrases as tenderly as a lover, at others stealing its limelight. Mozart’s fertility of imagination is evident in how he isolates the seemingly casual trill from the concerto’s very opening theme as an item ripe for the development section.
In contrast to the dramatic energy of the first movement, the Andantino basks in songfulness and gently subtle harmonies. Yet it also prefigures the tinge of melancholy that will be perfected in Figaro. For his finale, Mozart marries the brisk liveliness of rondo form (where the main tune continually returns after intervening episodes) with his growing fascination in contrapuntal textures. The striding, staccato rondo theme starts on a pronounced upbeat as if to give it a push. After a series of delightful variants, Mozart holds one more trick up his sleeve for the cadenza and coda: the piano retools the theme into a lilting 6/8, converting the orchestra to this new way of seeing it.
- Thomas May is senior music editor at Amazon.com and author of Decoding Wagner as well as the forthcoming John Adams Reader.