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Length: c. 35 minutes
Orchestration: flute, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 19, 1943, John Barbirolli conducting, with pianist José Iturbi
Mozart was a famous and intermittently wealthy man during his first four years in Vienna, 1782-1785, with his services as composer, pianist, and teacher fought over by the aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie. He was a central component of a golden age in Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a city made particularly attractive to artists by the number of generous patrons available. There was also a music industry: obviously, the composers and performers themselves, but also the requisite and rarely credited backup of copyists, publishers, and retailers (of scores and instruments) on an order that existed elsewhere only in London and Paris, both much larger cities.
By the end of 1785, however, trouble for the Empire – and, relatedly, for Mozart and the music industry – was beginning, what with uprisings on its distant borders and the likelihood (soon to become a reality) of a war with Turkey which the aristocracy would have to finance. Sights, and patronage, were being lowered.
The three great piano concertos of 1785, K. 466, K. 467, and K. 482, might not signal the beginning of an end, but in a sense they were. There would be more quality piano concertos by Mozart – at least four additional masterpieces would follow – but spread over five years. From the very month in which he began K. 482, November 1785, from which the first pages of Le nozze di Figaro date as well, comes the first of the free-spending composer’s pathetic begging letters, this one to his publisher, Hoffmeister, for “just a little money, since I need it very badly.” This to the firm that had only weeks before turned down the splendid G-minor Piano Quartet, K. 478, as being “too eccentric” – presumably for the amateurs who were its intended customers.
Mozart completed the present E-flat Concerto (his first great piano concerto, K. 271, is in the same key) on December 16, 1785, and with the ink barely dry, to coin the cliché, played it that same evening between the acts of the oratorio Esther by Ditters von Dittersdorf: a practice barbaric to us but accepted by composers and listeners in the 18th century. Still, it is difficult not to have one’s doubts about the quality of the minimally rehearsed, if rehearsed at all, orchestral performance on such an occasion.
Whatever Mozart’s personal difficulties and diminishing prospects at the time, there was a sufficient number of connoisseurs still available to pack the subscription concert that introduced this concerto as an independent (of Dittersdorf) work on December 23, 1785. It was very well received, most notably the slow movement, which had to be encored.
K. 482 looks back structurally to the previously mentioned K. 271, sharing the distinctive complex of profundity and flippancy and engaging in some of the same practices, such as the solemn slow movement and the opera buffa finale that suddenly turns darkly introspective.
But what strikes this listener most about K. 482 is the luxuriant, even by Mozartian standards, interplay between the piano and the woodwind quintet – flute and pairs of clarinets and bassoons – in the second and third movements, the winds rising out of the orchestra almost as a separate entity to engage in poignant, private chamber music conversations among themselves and with the piano. This is all the more striking for occurring within the context of such “public” music, i.e., scored for what was in its time a large orchestra.
Herbert Glass, after serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera, was for 25 years a critic / columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He recently completed his 15th season as English-language editor / annotator for the Salzburg Festival.