Length: c. 32 minutes
Orchestration: 2 oboes, 2 horns, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 18, 1971, with soloist Misha Dichter, Lawrence Foster conducting
Critical acclaim for this Concerto, long nicknamed “Jeunehomme,” highlights its significance in Mozart’s artistic development; Alfred Einstein went so far as to call it “Mozart’s ‘Eroica’.” (Einstein’s chronology does beg the question of whether it would not be fairer to call the “Eroica” “Beethoven’s ‘Jeunehomme’”?) More broadly, Charles Rosen called it “perhaps the first unequivocal masterpiece in a classical style purified of all mannerist traces.” Rosen’s description reminds us that the piece stands out less because of any Eroica-like radical break with an established style than from a mature understanding of the possibilities in an evolving one – less departure than arrival, but equally gratifying. Its allure over the years was only enhanced by its nickname, reputedly in honor of a mysterious pianist Mlle. Jeunehomme. Recently musicologist Michael Lorenz has found evidence that the dedicatee was Victoire Jenamy, daughter of dancer and Mozart friend Jean Georges Noverre, who visited Vienna in the winter of 1777.
We know immediately that this is an exceptional work. Rather than a conventional entrance after the orchestral exposition, the soloist darts in to fling out an answer to the orchestra’s opening gesture, then slips away again. Charles Rosen: “This is an astonishing and delightful opening, surprising not only for its use of the soloist at the very outset, but also for the wit with which he enters, as he replies to the orchestral fanfare.” The wit never lets up, as the pianist’s next entrance begins a bit before the prescribed moment with a long trill overlapping the end of the orchestra’s exposition. Mozart maintains the mood throughout the movement both through compact phrase structure perfectly suited to sparkling byplay and correspondingly delicate orchestral colors. As was his practice in works composed for others, Mozart wrote out the cadenzas; this one is brisk, almost matter-of-fact – a seamless extension of the soloist’s witty rejoinders throughout.
The second movement represents an expression of profound emotion not only beyond the composer’s years but beyond the descriptive power of a simple adjective. The minor key, slow tempo, and relatively dark orchestration mark it as sorrowful, but the probing quality of the accompaniment pattern adds a layer of energy somewhere between agitated and despairing. Of special note is the frequent use of ornamentation. Always a key element of Mozart’s style, here it imparts a kind of tender poignancy far removed from the lighthearted decoration of the preceding movement.
The finale sports a characteristically snappy rondo theme introduced by the piano. Mozart’s use of juxtaposition and contrast is taken to a new level with the inclusion of a full-scale minuet (in honor of dancer Noverre?) in the middle of the movement. Introduced and dominated by the piano all the way through a rhapsodic cadenza, it is as if the soloist has pulled the orchestra into a different world, after which the return of the main theme emphasizes the larger structural logic of the rondo. And although the form is seemingly less sophisticated than the development-based sonata form, it allows Mozart to show off how by perfectly capturing an outward gesture he can also reveal inner truth.
— Susan Key