program notes: mozart triple-double
Sunday November 12, 2006
Soon after settling permanently in Vienna and getting married, Mozart began writing piano concertos in order to become known as both composer and piano virtuoso. Starting in late 1782, he quickly wrote three rather modest works, of which the Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major was the first to be composed. He wrote to his father on December 28, 1782, to say that he still had two more of the concertos to compose, but that he already knew that all three would be “a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult…very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being vapid.”
The only evidence that he ever played Piano Concerto No.12 in public is the fact that he wrote two complete sets of cadenzas for the work. However, that may only mean that one of his students played the piece-Mozart could easily improvise his cadenzas, but his students needed to have them written out.
Throughout the concerto, the keyboard seems to dominate, as if to compensate for the small orchestra. There are a considerable number of cadenza-like passages that sound as though they are improvised-one full cadenza in each of the three movements, as well as an additional solo “lead-in” in the middle of the second movement, and two in the final movement. And, aside from having less of an orchestral battery to contend with, the piano dominates as always in Mozart’s concertos by controlling the musical discourse and introducing new musical ideas of its own.
The slow movement opens with a quotation from a Johann Christian Bach symphony. As a child on his first visit to London, Mozart had met and admired Johann Christian, widely referred to as the “London Bach.” Johann Christian Bach died on New Year’s Day of 1782, and Stanley Sadie suggests that the quotation makes the Andante an elegy composed in response to that event.
Mozart may have actually written two different versions of the concluding Rondo, since by October 1782 he had already composed a rondo in A that seems to have been intended for this position. But the sprightly allegretto that now stands as the concluding movement of the concerto is both livelier and more fitting as a conclusion to this graceful and witty work.
Mozart composed the Piano Concerto No. 10 in E-flat for Two Pianos in 1779 to play with his older sister Maria Anna (known as “Nannerl”). It is the last piano concerto he wrote before leaving Salzburg for Vienna in an attempt to be on his own and to escape his father’s kindly, but overwhelming, domination. He was, after all, twenty-three years old and felt ready to be independent-something that Papa Leopold never wanted to allow.
A concerto for two pianos differs from the standard solo piano concerto format because the very nature of the ensemble assumes that there will be a certain amount of dialogue between the two pianos as they toss musical ideas back and forth and decorate the ideas playfully, as if in competition. All of this is natural enough in any case, and even more so when the intended performers are siblings who have often performed together. Wolfgang was careful to divide up the striking passages fairly equally between the two soloists, yet the concerto is far more than just a chance for musical rivalry in front of an audience.
The first movement does not aim for particular novelty in its musical ideas, but is vigorous and lyrical by turns. As the movement unfolds, it proves to be wonderfully spacious, as if Mozart is thoroughly enjoying himself and letting his ideas flow freely.
The slow movement is delicate and refined, with much decorative material to be exchanged by the soloists in a musical dialogue. For the most part the orchestra stays in the background and allows the playful charm of the pair of pianists to emerge in the solo parts.
The finale is energetic to a high degree, full of rhythmic drive in its main rondo theme, out of which Mozart builds an elaborate sonata-rondo shape. One of the great joys of Mozartean rondos is the surprising way that the composer constructs a return to the main theme, and this movement is no exception. Momentary touches of lyrical grace or poignancy make the inevitable return to the rondo theme all the more exuberant.
Critics have often taken a patronizing view of the Piano Concerto No.7 in F Major for Three Pianos, which Mozart composed in Salzburg in February 1776. But, after all, Mozart composed the work on commission, not for himself but for three lady amateurs, a mother and two daughters who were his students. Naturally the ladies wished that Mozart would write something pleasant and charming that would give delight to the performers and to their guests. In that, he surely succeeded. He evidently planned the parts for the specific abilities of the Countess Lodron (a sister of Mozart’s Salzburg employer, Archbishop Colloredo) and her daughters Louise and Josepha, the latter being a less experienced pianist for whom Mozart carefully wrote a part with fewer technical difficulties.
A Bach concerto for three keyboard instruments would be highly contrapuntal, but Mozart’s concerto avoids complex counterpoint in favor of delicacy, charm, grace, and tunefulness. The opening Allegro and the closing Rondo are each played at a minuet tempo and are chivalrous in style. The slow movement, on the other hand, contains expression equal to that in Mozart’s greatest works, with its passing chromatic tones embellishing the melodies with delicate sighs.
Mozart composed three concertos during the time he was working on The Marriage of Figaro in the winter of 1785-86. The first two of these were relatively decorative and lyrical, sure to please the Viennese. The third, Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, is more symphonic and full of coloristic interest. It is the only Mozart concerto to have both oboes and clarinets.
The Piano Concerto No. 24 is unusually single-minded in its concentration on the principal thematic material presented at the very outset. It is tightly organized thematically in same way as Haydn’s symphonies. The tense emotional storms called forth by the C-minor tonality, the frequent chromatic movement, and the thematic concentration cost Mozart a great deal of effort, as the much-cancelled and rewritten manuscript reveals.
The introductory orchestral exposition is so completely devoted to the opening material and its developments that there is hardly a hint of any second theme. Even when the piano takes off on its own exposition, the relative major key of E-flat does not bring with it a memorable new melody, just a momentary relief from chromatic intensity-and the respite is indeed brief.
After this tempest of uncertainty, the slow movement brings the air of something almost too pure to exist in the real world. The play of the woodwinds is particularly ethereal. For much of the movement, even though he has both clarinets and oboes at hand, Mozart builds his woodwind interludes with flute on top, bassoon on the bottom, and either clarinets or oboes in the middle. Gradually they begin to impinge upon one another until all of the woodwinds (supported by the horns), like balmy zephyrs, bring in the soloist for another statement of his theme.
The finale, too, is deeply serious, filled with many reminders of the overall mood, even when, after the cadenza, the piano unexpectedly takes off in a rollicking 6/8 version of the theme to bring the concerto to its conclusion.
Beethoven thought especially highly of this work. When he came to write his own Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, he paid homage to his great predecessor by adopting a number of Mozart’s most felicitous touches, especially the magical, mysterious moment at the very end of the first movement, after the cadenza, which seems already to have opened a door to the world of romanticism.
(c) Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)