Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 14, 1938, with pianist Artur Schnabel, Otto Klemperer conducting
There is an oldish book for young people titled Mozart the Wonder Boy. If there were a sequel it would have to be Mozart the Miraculous Man Volume I and it would be centered on the MM’s piano concertos. Why the piano concertos and not the operas, or the symphonies, or…? Because the keyboard concertos consistently struck rich melodic veins and, with the minted gold, Mozart dressed his solo protagonist, the piano, in the guises of hero, heroine, villain, supporting player. The keyboard’s reactions and responses to the dramatic stimuli of the orchestra result in shades of interplay that are, in their way, as richly varied as those sung and acted out in his sublime operas.
These are not just frivolous showpieces. In their fusion of symphonic and concerto form, the fluidity of the solo writing, and in the structural originality each work called forth, they form the classical concerto gospel, which was to have as its dedicated disciple the young Beethoven. No formulas bound Mozart. Each concerto, though bearing an unmistakable family resemblance to its siblings, commanded and received specific, thoroughly individual compositional responses.
His keyboard concertos are the most personal of Mozart’s works, most of them having been written to provide the composer with new vehicles for his own public performances. Even the first of his original works in this form, K. 175 in D, which dates from 1773, contains important intimations of distinctiveness. (Earlier catalogued efforts, titled concertos, were merely sonata movements by other composers that he arranged for piano and orchestra.) A few years later, with the appearance of the E-flat Concerto, K. 271, the prognosis was unmistakably positive: the genre would be a very special one for him. And in Vienna, Mozart more than fulfilled the expectation by producing a series of 17 remarkable works for piano and orchestra, the very least of which sits comfortably at the doorstep of sublimity.
A sad historical footnote reveals that, while his concerto inspiration hardly ever failed him, his public did. Proof of this deplorable fact is seen in the correlation between his Viennese popularity and each year’s need for new concertos: three in 1782 and 1783, six in 1784, three in 1785 (the year of K. 467), a like number in 1786, and one each in 1788 and 1791.
Thank heaven for the successful years; without them there would unquestionably be fewer Mozart piano concertos. One is given to wondering, however, whether the flighty aristocrats for whom the works were written perceived even faintly the uniqueness of Mozart’s achievement during the time they were making him the fashion of the moment.
The present Concerto (for a recent time known as the Elvira Madigan Concerto because the use of its second movement contributed so strongly to the mood of the film of that name), was written within the month after the vividly dramatic one in D minor, K. 466, and is like a grand comedic antidote to it. Its quiet, march-like opening in unison strings sets an opera buffa-like stage for the succession of ideas which, though interesting enough in themselves, are completely successful in that they ideally convey a bristling air of expectancy. In this orchestral opening, the winds play important supporting roles: they initiate little fanfares, stride about in busy attendance upon the strings, or capture center stage with bright melodic interjections. (Mozart’s wind band is utilized richly throughout; the first use of clarinets in the concertos occurs in the next work, K. 482 in E-flat.)
The piano remains in the wings until after the march theme’s third appearance in the orchestra. When it enters, it does so cautiously, almost reluctantly, making two rather timid bids for attention. Summoning more courage, it ventures further, reaches for a higher place on the keyboard, finds it, pauses, then trills exultantly over the march theme in the strings, and is finally off on its liberated way. Before the piano introduces the true second theme, there is a poignant episode that foreshadows the great G-minor Symphony’s opening, but this seriousness is easily banished by the warmth of the incomparably sunny second subject. The remainder of the movement pursues a clearly classical path but with the unlabored energy and joyousness which show no traces of earth-bound formalism.
The second movement’s fragile, nocturnal atmosphere is borne along by the gentle urgency of a constantly moving triplet-figure accompaniment. Unusually large melodic leaps invest the music with an underlying restlessness that indeed develops into tragic pathos in a passage darkened by orchestral dissonances and pierced by the solo’s pleading voice. The opening peacefulness resolves the twice-heard conflict and we are set for a final movement that races along with a kind of devil-may-care rambunctiousness (what could be more antic than the cheeky main theme?).
The entire finale suggests it has nothing more on its mind than pianistic fun and games with an orchestra that is perfectly willing and able to play.
- Orrin Howard