Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 24, 1926, with soloist Elinor Remick Warren, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
Broad generalization: the Romantics weren’t enamored of Mozart. They liked his life story, the precocious childhood, the financial crises, and the life’s premature end. But his music was, in the general estimation, too courtly, too innocent, hardly able to reflect the world as they saw it. They were unable to read between the lines, so to speak, and their store of biographical information was limited, to say the least. In the main Schumann, Berlioz, Chopin, etc. – all of whom claimed to adore Mozart, but whose writings are full of condescending remarks on the pride of Salzburg – “missed the point,” or an infinite variety of points.
Nonetheless, 19th-century audiences and composers were mad about his Piano Concerto in D minor, K. 466. And we can assume that they appreciated as well the Piano Concerto in C minor, K. 491. Why? Because neither work is happy, or serene, or smoothly sculpted, with the exception of the lighthearted final pages of K. 466. Both concertos – and no praise could be higher in the age of and after Beethoven – were regarded as Beethovenish.
Indeed, K. 466 was a favorite of the “Titan” himself, figuring prominently in his repertoire as a concert pianist and for which he even wrote cadenzas, Mozart not having supplied any himself. Today, rather than standing in near-solitary splendor alongside Mozart’s only other minor-key piano concerto, it is regarded as the first in the succession of the half-dozen sublime masterpieces for piano and orchestra dating from 1785-1786 – the same brief span that also saw the creation of Le nozze di Figaro, the “Prague” Symphony, the Clarinet Trio, the last two string quartets dedicated to Haydn and the String Quartet in D, K. 499, the four-hand Sonata in F, K. 497, and the C-minor Concerto. And that is only a partial listing.
The composer-pianist was at the time still the idol of Viennese society, his audiences willing to accept anything that flew from his pen, even so uncharacteristic a score as the Concerto in D minor – if Mozart were also the performer.
K. 466 was introduced to the world at one of his academies, i.e., subscription concerts: “produced by and starring W.A. Mozart,” as we might say today. The success of the Concerto on February 11, 1785 (it was completed the day before) was considerable, based in no small part on the composer’s playing of the demanding solo, the entire presentation made additionally exigent by the fact that the ink was still wet on some of the orchestral parts until an hour before the performance.
While the Concerto makes its stormy intentions clear from the get-go, it (uncharacteristically) does not state its principal theme at the outset; rather, there are a few bars of murmurous, agitated, syncopated swirlings in the violins and violas, with stabbing cellos and basses, until the tension explodes – for the first of several times in this turbulent music – in a volley for the entire orchestra. The piano creeps in with a quiet, almost frightened-sounding theme, which the orchestra attempts repeatedly to banish. The battle is unceasing, and there is no victor. The tension remains to the end, unresolved (albeit in D minor).
The only thing predictable about the slow movement is that it will provide graceful, lyric contrast. But it does so with qualms. At midpoint, Mozart intrudes on the calm, B-flat song with a cyclonic presto outburst in G minor, jolting listener and performer from their reverie, with the soloist forced to race up and down the keyboard with a degree of virtuosity elsewhere in Mozart restricted to the outer movements of a concerto.
As in the finale of Mozart’s Concerto in F, K. 459, the piano here announces the theme and then gives way to a rich, long development in the orchestra. In K. 459 it is blithely sublime; here it’s all fire and fangs, before the re-entry of the piano, with some particularly felicitous interchanges with the winds. But menace remains in the air. There is no transition to the major; it just happens. The conflict was not going anywhere, only becoming more conflicted. Thus, the conclusion of this most D-minor of concertos is in D major. Alfred Einstein, in his 1945 book titled, simply, Mozart, and still in certain respects indispensable (even after research into and revision of the Mozart legend by countless subsequent scholars), describes this stunning about-face as, “a coda of enchanting sweetness, which represents at the same time an affecting ray of light, a return to the social atmosphere of earlier works, the courtly gesture of a grand seigneur who wishes to leave his guests with a friendly impression.”
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 16th season as English-language editor / annotator for the Salzburg Festival.