Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: mozart coronation

Saturday February 17, 2007
Sunday February 18, 2007

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 13 in C major, K. 415

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

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 19 in F major, K. 459

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

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 26 in D major, K. 537, “Coronation”

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

One of Mozart’s urgent concerns upon settling permanently in Vienna and marrying Constanze Weber, with the prospect of children appearing soon, was to establish himself financially. One of the best ways to do this was to write and play piano concertos, which served the double function of promoting him as composer and performer. Thus Mozart began his great series of piano concertos, starting with three rather modest works composed late in 1782 and early 1783, Piano Concerto Nos. 13-15. Mozart wrote Nos. 13 and 14 in such a way that they could be played with either full or reduced forces-in a public, orchestral concert or a private chamber performance at home, with string quartet accompaniment.

The Piano Concerto No. 13 in C Major requires larger orchestral forces for performance. It is the one that Mozart performed on March 23 and again in early April 1783. The richness of the wind parts surely made a grand sound. But the concerto can still be performed as a chamber work. And on those rare occasions when we hear it like that, the most striking feature will be the richness of the writing for the strings, which must carry the entire burden of the orchestral part in small performances. In this performance, however, we will hear the full orchestral version of the concerto, including woodwinds.

The slow movement offers a gently flowing andante that is in marked contrast to the energy of the outer movements. The closing rondo is full of surprises, especially the sections in a slower tempo and a minor key, which lend a slightly mysterious air to what is otherwise a cheerful close. Those minor-key passages have enough power to undercut what would normally be a loud and lively conclusion, and the last return of the main theme dies away with a hushed grumble in the strings.

Piano Concerto No. 19 in F major, completed on December 11, is the last of six works that Mozart composed in the incredibly fruitful year of 1784. We have no specific evidence of a performance for which it might have been intended, but since Mozart rarely finished a work more than a few days before it was needed, perhaps he planned it for his initiation into the Masonic lodge zur Wohltatigkeit (“Beneficence”) in Vienna, a ceremony that took place three days after the concerto’s completion. He certainly composed later music for Masonic ceremonies, and the lodges included men of many talents, intellectual and artistic. Still, this is all pure speculation.

As in the three concertos that preceded it, Mozart began with the stylized march rhythm so common in the late eighteenth century. Of the four concertos in which he rang the changes on this hackneyed rhythm, Concerto No. 19 is positively the most buoyant, the most lighthearted.

At first it appears that the opening dotted rhythm was a passing fancy, so varied with tunes is this ritornello (an orchestral exposition of themes that will return; literally, “that which returns”). But when the soloist enters, it becomes clear that in fact much of the discussion to follow will confront that dotted rhythm, and after the second theme has appeared (in a delicious dialogue between strings and winds, repeated with decorations by the soloist), it is even more obvious that it remains the subject under discussion. Yet what might become martial and aggressive is here simply cheerful and witty conversation.

Allegretto is a somewhat faster tempo than usual for a slow movement. The first theme is followed by a marvelous syncopated figure in the first violins and first oboe that turns unexpectedly dark with a brief passionate outburst before the entrance of the soloist, who has a charming conversation with flute and bassoon on the subject of the first theme. The outburst never returns, though there are occasional hints later on that seem to suggest it. The scarcely-plumbed depths, in this generally sunny context, are unexpectedly moving. The woodwinds play a large role here, teasing one another in delightful scalar passages at the very end.

The finale is a vivacious rondo built on a theme that is itself constructed from a tiny three-note figure with brilliant wit and astonishing invention. Mozart teases us with what sounds like the beginning of a fugue, a “scholarly” genre that is out of place in a piano concerto-out of place, that is, unless a genius like Mozart makes it a foil to the witty rondo theme. The interplay of these elements is brilliantly worked out in this finale, the capstone to the comedy of manners-only just touched by poignancy in the slow movement-that closes the concerto year of 1784.

The nickname “Coronation” leads us to expect something grand and powerful of the Piano Concerto No. 26 in D major, but in fact the nickname came only after Mozart gave a performance (not the premiere) in the city where the new Holy Roman Emperor was being crowned, nearly three years after the concerto was finished.

Mozart must have intended to play the D-major concerto himself, since he only sketched the solo part. He knew how it was to go, but by not writing it out in full, he could prevent unscrupulous copyists from surreptitiously selling it without his permission. But we know of no performance in February 1788, the month that he finished the piece. A year later he performed it for the Elector at Dresden, receiving as a reward “a very handsome snuff-box.” (A handsome well-filled purse might have been more welcome!) And then in 1790, upon the death of Emperor Joseph II, Mozart decided to travel to Frankfurt-am-Main for the coronation festivities of Leopold II, hoping the festive mood would make for successful concerts. He found himself famous and admired in Frankfurt, but, as he wrote to Constanze, “The Frankfurt people are even more stingy than the Viennese.” To make matters worse, his concert was “a splendid success” in artistic terms, but a financial failure because potential ticket-buyers were scattered far and wide by parties and other available entertainments. Depressed, he returned home and never played the D-major concerto again.

Surprisingly, the concerto became one of the most popular of his works after his death-quite possibly because it was seen as a forerunner of the brilliant virtuosic concertos of some of the early romantics like Johann Nepomuk Hummel or Carl Maria von Weber. Charles Rosen, in his book The Classical Style, suggests that “This is the concerto that Hummel would have written if he had had not only a remarkable talent but genius.”

Where the classical concerto was a carefully balanced harmonic structure shaped by the careful deployment of thematic material, the romantic concerto aims above all to project the themes. In a sense, the “Coronation” concerto takes a step ultimately toward the Rachmaninoff concertos. The loosening of the form is compensated by the increasing brilliancy of the solo part, a kind of writing aimed evidently at a broader audience than the connoisseurs who appreciated the more intricately-worked earlier concertos.

The first movement’s orchestral exposition presents all of the material to be heard in the movement except for the beginning of the secondary theme, reserved for the soloist, who offers some momentary surprises in chromatic touches aiming at the minor mode. These will have consequences in some proto-romantic harmonic shifts later in the piece, particularly in the eventful development. The delicate and graceful middle movement is shaped in a straightforward ABA form. The finale is a rondo balancing tunefulness with ever-increasing virtuosity.

(c) Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)

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