Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: mozart gold

Saturday December 9, 2006
Sunday December 10, 2006

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 18 in B-flat major, K. 456

orchestration: solo piano; 1 flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons; 2 horns; strings

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 16 in D major, K. 451

orchestration: solo piano; 1 flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, 2 trumpets; timpani; strings

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K. 503

orchestration: solo piano; 1 flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, 2 trumpets; timpani; strings

The year 1784 was the most successful of Mozart’s life, at least in terms of the public demand for his music. He composed no fewer than six piano concertos, four between the beginning of February and mid April! These concertos mark Mozart’s achievement of a true maturity in concerto composition. From this time on, each concerto has its own character and personality; the composer has passed thoroughly beyond the highly stylized concerto forms that he inherited, forms that strait jacketed so many other composers.

Piano concertos nos.15-17 begin the series of “symphonic” concertos that runs through the rest of Mozart’s output. He referred nos. 15 and 16 in a letter he wrote to his father in May, remarking that they are designed “to make the performer sweat.” Certainly the virtuosic element is vital in the solo part, but equally important is Mozart’s new-found ability to reconcile virtuosity for its own sake with a rich variety of thematic material arranged in a satisfactory symphonic structure.

The Piano Concerto No. 16 in D major has long been the least performed of these works, probably because Mozart here was so stingy (relatively speaking) in his normally lavish supply of melodies. He concentrates his attention on a small number of motivic ideas. This may represent some kind of homage to Haydn, whose normal approach was to work his material single mindedly, but with extraordinary imagination. The fact that Mozart was at this time about halfway through the composition of the six “Haydn quartets,” strongly influenced by the older master’s quartet writing, may lend credence to the hypothesis. In lieu of many themes, Mozart offers brilliant sonorities. The orchestra includes trumpets and drums, a richer and more festive sound than had been the case in more softly scored previous concertos.

The music is more spacious, too, growing from a heroic quick-march. Here, with trumpets and drums seconding the rest of the orchestra, the opening gesture of the first movement is truly martial, though the trumpets drop out for the contrasting material, allowing the woodwinds their opportunity for cheerful dialogue with the strings. The soloist, once he has entered, reinterprets all of these ideas in his own terms, with a particularly delicious interplay of piano and woodwinds in the place of the earlier woodwinds and strings. The development is relatively short, but the recapitulation is striking in that, except for its first phrases, it is almost entirely to be played softly; everything heard at a forte dynamic in the opening is here piano, thus allowing the return of the opening quick-march in the coda to be that much more powerful.

The slow movement is a song-like rondo, with the opening theme alternating with two other ideas in an ABACA pattern, followed by a coda. When Mozart sent the three big concertos to his family in Salzburg, his sister Nannerl pointed out something she did not care for in the C section. She felt the piano part to be too bare. Her brother agreed that there was something missing. “I will supply the deficiency as soon as possible and send it with the cadenzas.” His second version survives, giving us a precise example of how he would ornament a very simple melodic line in a slow movement like this.

The finale is an exuberant sonata rondo that is generally described as Haydnesque, built on two principal ideas alternated and developed. The most charming surprise of this witty and delightful movement is the composer’s decision, after the cadenza, to convert all the tunes of the movement from the duple rhythms of 2/4 time into the triplet-filled 3/8 meter, and the orchestra follows along with sparkling good humor.

In Mozart’s time, most concerts—and therefore new concertos—came during Lent, when theaters and opera houses were closed. After an exceptionally busy spring in 1784, the pace slowed when he became ill—probably a kidney infection—in August and was perhaps distracted by the birth of his second child, Carl Thomas, in early September. After composing four concertos in the spring, he added only two more for the rest of the year. The Piano Concerto No. 18 in B flat major came at the end of September.

Here, too, Mozart plays with the stereotyped march rhythm that is unavoidable in the late eighteenth century. In Concerto No. 18, the opening is light-hearted and fresh, but following the first passage, a sudden dark sonority through a hint of the minor key suggests previously unexplored harmonic depths. A little fanfare for the woodwinds ends the orchestral exposition. The soloist enters with the main theme but soon introduces one melody that Mozart has held in reserve. The minor-key passage from the orchestral exposition becomes still more atmospheric when the soloist then superimposes shimmering arpeggios.

A melancholy G-minor theme provides the material for a set of five variations in the slow movement. The fourth of these, in the major, anticipates Schubert’s love of major/minor alternations. The final variation returns to the minor mode, with no repetitions. The theme is played straightforwardly in the orchestra while the piano offers its stormy commentary. The coda extends the play between fragments with major and minor coloration and then brings the movement to a delicate close.

The finale, with its 6/8 time and horn-call theme, has a rustic quality and a cheerful willingness to linger on its melodic material. Once it arrives on the dominant, the piano introduces a charmingly syncopated figure. Following the first return of the main theme, the music modulates to the distant key of B minor, where Mozart briefly mixes meters, with the woodwinds in 2/4 time while the others stay in 6/8. Later, the piano goes back into 2/4 against the triplet subdivisions in the strings. This metric wandering works its way around to someplace nearer home and to the 6/8 meter in all parts before restating the first episode and finally, the opening theme, which ends the concerto with neat precision.

The Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major is the third piano concerto that Mozart composed in 1786 and the grandest of the entire series, almost epic in scope. Its spaciousness has sometimes led critics to view it as a purely formal work, lacking in those lovable touches that characterize so many of the concertos, but this perception is misleading. To be sure, the opening stays strictly within a form, with a stereotyped gesture offering dotted rhythms as the melodic line descends through the notes of the tonic C major triad. But immediately thereafter surprises appear: a sequential passage based on an eighth-note rhythmic figure turns suddenly toward the minor. Throughout this concerto the brilliance of C major tends to darken into poignancy in an almost Schubertian way, thirty years before Schubert himself. The soloist’s first entry is a bashful conclusion of the orchestra’s material, but soon the piano takes the lead to a lyrical new theme that has embedded within it the eighth note rhythm of the earlier sequential phrase. A theme that had grown out of the sequential passage controls much of the development. The discourse is wide ranging and full of events, its flexibility only re-emphasized by the return to the formal opening material for the movement’s conclusion.

The serene Andante begins with an elaborate orchestral exposition containing at least four distinct thematic phrases. When the soloist enters, these themes hint at a sonata form discussion, though without a development. The mood is Olympian, detached, with ethereal writing for the winds. The material is arranged for graceful contrast, providing a moment of blissful repose between the symphonic energy of the opening movement and the light-heartedness of the finale.

Mozart fills the final rondo with a rich medley of tunes in which the orchestra and soloist can alternate or combine in endlessly varied ways with witty retorts and high good humor. As in the first movement, there are quicksilver hints of the minor mode within passages largely in major. The central episode of the rondo begins with a nervous theme in A minor, then melts into a wonderfully song-like theme in F, gently syncopated, over a broad harmonic bass. The figure that begins this F-major theme turns into a contrapuntal dialogue over arpeggios in the piano. Finally Mozart engineers one of his smoothly elegant, yet surprising returns to the main material for the recapitulation.

Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)

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