Piano Concerto No. 18, K. 456, “Paradis”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Orchestration: flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings, and solo piano
In 1784, Mozart was working hard in Vienna, having moved to that capital of the musical world three years earlier. The 28-year-old Mozart composed six piano concertos that year, intending himself as the soloist for most of them. He was so busy during this time that he began cataloging his compositions himself, logging his Piano Concerto No. 18, K. 456 as completed on September 30.
The following February, his father Leopold visited him. According to his letters to his daughter Nannerl, the elder Mozart was impressed with Wolfgang’s ceaseless performances, noting that Franz Joseph Haydn himself declared, “Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me in person or by name.”
Leopold’s letters report that on February 13, the day after Haydn’s famous proclamation, Wolfgang played “a masterful concerto that he wrote for Paradis. I had the great pleasure of hearing all the interplay of the instruments so clearly that for sheer delight tears came to my eyes.” He refers here to Maria Theresia von Paradis, an accomplished singer, pianist, and composer who had gone blind at the age of four. Although some music historians cast doubt as to precisely which concerto Leopold described, the Piano Concerto No. 18 is now known as the “Paradis” Concerto.
The first theme of the Allegro vivace, introduced by the strings, begins with a quiet, crisp fanfare. The wind instruments echo the melody at the same volume, and then the sections join forces for a confident completion of the first theme group. The genial second theme features pairs of woodwind instruments exchanging the melody over undulating strings. The initial rhythmic motto returns to conclude the orchestral introduction. The piano enters, revisiting the themes and embellishing them, turning the movement into as tasteful conversation between the soloist and the woodwinds.
The second movement, Andante un poco sostenuto, consists of a theme and five variations, followed by a coda. The first violins introduce the melancholy theme with support from the orchestra, but the solo piano presents the first variation alone, with minimal accompaniment at the ends of phrases. The variation in major, starting with a pair of oboes, provides bucolic tranquility before returning to the despair of minor. The Allegro vivace finale is in rondo form, with a charming theme recurring throughout the movement. One of the contrasting passages features an intriguing metric conflict: the strings remain in 6/8 throughout the movement, but near the midpoint the woodwinds switch to 2/4. The beat remains unchanged, but the strings’ triple subdivision conflicts with the winds’ duple subdivision. The piano briefly reinforces the winds in 2/4 before coaxing them back to 6/8 for the sunny conclusion.
Notes by Linda Shaver-Gleason