Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 20, 1939, Otto Klemperer conducting, with soloist Artur Schnabel
“Mozart was not a human being; he was a god.”
– Maurice Ravel
The great gift with which Mozart had been blessed functioned at various levels of exaltation. It even remained relatively dormant more often than many of us worshippers would care to admit. There were, however, two kinds of compositions for whose genesis his muse remained on virtually constant vigil: operas and piano concertos. The former called forth an almost endless flow of melodies, clothing the operatic characters in garments perfectly tailored to fit their librettoed personalities. The latter – the piano concertos – struck equally rich melodic mines, and with the minted gold Mozart dressed his solo protagonist in the multiple guises of hero, heroine, villain (rarely), supporting player. The keyboard often initiates the drama, and also reacts and responds to the stimuli of the orchestra. The resultant shades of interplay are, in their way, as richly varied as those sung and acted out in the operas.
The B-flat Concerto, K. 595, is Mozart’s final work in the form. (Its designation as No. 27 reflects the inclusion in his catalog of four works which were merely sonata movements by other composers that the precocious lad of 11 arranged for piano and orchestra. K. 595 is, then, his 23rd original piano concerto and his 21st solo concerto – of the 23, one is for two pianos, another for three.) The Concerto, completed in January 1791, broke a nearly three-year concerto dry spell, the longest period without a new piano-orchestra work since he had settled in Vienna. (The year 1784 had been the most productive, with six concertos flying off his writing table.) Whether he wrote the Concerto for himself, as had been the case with most of the works until then, is not known.
What is known is that, beginning in the late 1780s, the composer was stalked by bad luck. His financial plight had worsened; he was deeply concerned over his wife’s ill health and, as the ultimate indignity, as court composer to Emperor Joseph II he was little more than a maker of dance ditties. But, withal, this incredible man not only persisted but sailed at a very high altitude above his manifold woes: In 1790, he wrote the glittering Così fan tutte, in 1791 created the splendors of Die Zauberflöte, and also that year La clemenza di Tito. Amidst this remarkable productivity came the present Concerto, a composition that has variously been described as weary, troubled, pervadingly tragic.
One wonders whether these estimates would be the same had the Concerto not been written in the year of his death, and were it not his final work in a form he alone had developed to such artistic and virtuosic heights. It is true that some other compositions of his last period, e.g., the Adagio of the String Quintet in D, K. 593, and the organ fantasias, reflect the anguish of his life and perhaps even a presentiment of its imminent end. And then, of course, there is the Requiem. But the mellow, affectingly reticent B-flat Concerto should not be made to wear a black armband, which, however, has been placed there by Cuthbert Girdlestone in his splendid book, Mozart and His Piano Concertos, normally this writer’s bible on the subject. Girdlestone writes of the Concerto’s “resignation and nostalgia [which] spreads not only a veil of sadness over the whole concerto, [but] also casts on it at times as it were an evening light, announcing the end of a life.”
This description seems to go way over the psychological line about a piece of music that is singularly uncomplicated, existing on its own simple plane of subdued intimacy. The mellow tone of the work conveys a composure and a kind of mature serenity that are amazing considering the composer’s multiple life agonies. The melodies are direct, the passagework limpid and relatively undemanding, in complete contrast to the glitter and brilliance – and superficiality – of the “Coronation” Concerto that preceded this one. The frequent reliance on the winds enhances the warmth that is the most prominent feature of the Concerto.
Indeed, mellowness is implicit in the Concerto – in the floating lyricism of the first movement; in the second movement’s hushed revelations and pristine, operatic miniaturism; and in the finale’s good humor. Mozart closes the door on his incomparable piano concerto literature without heroics, without self pity – with just a smile which, to be sure, carried at its corners a touch of the sad resignation he must have been experiencing at the time.