Joannes Chrisostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart, who began to call himself Wolfgango Amadeo about 1770 and Wolfgang Amadè in 1777 (but Amadeus only in jest and in the combination “Wolfgangus Amadeus”), was born in Salzburg, Austria, on January 27, 1756, and died in Vienna on December 5, 1791. He composed his E-flat major Piano Concerto (K.482) in late 1785, apparently completing it on December 16 of that year, and he was the soloist and conductor when the work was played—this was perhaps its premiere--a week later, on December 23, at the Burgtheater in Vienna. José Iturbi introduced the work at concerts of the San Francisco Symphony in January 1939, with Pierre Monteux conducting. In the most recent SFS performances, in February 2008, Jonathan Biss was soloist and Herbert Blomstedt conduced. The score calls for flute, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings, in addition to the solo piano. No original cadenzas by Mozart survive for this concerto. In this performance, David Fray plays cadenzas by Edwin Fischer. Performance time: about thirty-four minutes.
When Mozart established himself in Vienna in 1781, he hoped to make a name as a composer and as a pianist. He was supremely equipped to do both. The obvious intersection of Mozart’s two disciplines came in the composition of piano concertos, works he composed, in most cases, to spotlight his own talents as a performer.
The catalogue of his piano concertos chronicles the rise and fall of Mozart’s popularity as a concert musician. His changing fortunes around the time he composed this concerto are confirmed by a letter he wrote to the publisher Franz Anton Hoffmeister on November 20, 1785, not quite a month before he finished this piece: “I turn to you in my hour of need, begging you to help me out with some money, which I need urgently at this moment.” Such entreaties, directed to various friends and colleagues, would become increasingly common with the passing months.
Mozart signaled the completion of the E-flat major Piano Concerto (K.482) by entering it into his “Catalogue of All My Works” on December 16, 1785. It was the last of his three piano concertos of 1785, a year in which he played in some twenty concerts. The two concertos that preceded this one, the D minor and the C major (with its immensely famous slow movement), are among his most played today. The Concerto in E-flat major remains perhaps more in the domain of connoisseurs, who esteem it not less than its immediate predecessors. It glows with a rich infusion of woodwind colors. In fact, this was the first of Mozart’s piano concertos to include clarinets in its orchestration.
This work received what was perhaps its first performance at a prestigious forum, the annual fundraising gala for the Vienna Society of Musicians, which was proud to announce in its published proceedings for December 23 that “Herr W.A. Mozart will play on the forte-piano a new Concerto of his own composition.”
This is a particularly elegant work, filled with ornate, often complicated, writing for the soloist yet completely unostentatious in its natural sense of aristocratic poise. In his indispensable book Mozart and his Piano Concertos (1948/64), Cuthbert Girdlestone observed: “Of all his concertos, this one is the queenliest. Combining grace and majesty, the music unfolds like a sovereign in progress. . . .” Or if not a queen, at least a countess. For by the time Mozart completed this concerto he was already busy composing Le nozze di Figaro, which would be premiered the following May 1. That peerless opera—and particularly the role of the Countess Almaviva--comes often to mind as we listen to this concerto, so gorgeous in its veneer, subtle in its drama, sincere in its expression, and dignified in its bearing.
The first movement opens with an elongation of the “tum-tum-ta-tum” rhythm that Mozart loved to use when he wrote for trumpets and timpani. Those instruments are indeed prominent in the orchestration, and the technical limitations of trumpets at that time allowed them to be used only in certain keys. E-flat qualifies as not only the outer limit of possible keys but also one of the warmest and richest of available choices—perfectly in line with the character of this concerto, which does not trade in bravura. The opening fanfare is answered by a sequence of harmonic suspensions played by the horns, enlivened by punchy bassoons; and then this opening complex repeats, with the orchestration of the suspension passage strikingly re-conceived. Variety will be this movement’s hallmark. Themes flow forth with a generosity unusual even for Mozart.
Each movement offers joys both abundant and unique. Nonetheless, the Andante, a plaintive set of variations in C minor, seems to have touched its first listeners most deeply, as evidence Mozart’s report to his father about the demands to encore it. In 1964 the composer Olivier Messiaen wrote commentaries on all twenty-one of Mozart’s “mature” solo-piano concertos plus the Concert-Rondo (K.382), to accompany a performance of the complete cycle by his wife, Yvonne Loriod, with the Lamoureux Orchestra in Paris. Here’s a sampling of what that modern master had to say of the slow movement of K.482: “ ‘Death . . . I have over the last several years formed such a knowing relationship with this true and best friend of humankind that his image holds nothing terrifying for me anymore!’ (letter from Mozart to his father). It’s an oft-cited text, dating from April 4, 1787, about sixteen months after the Andante of the Concerto K.482: yet it expresses the same sentiment. It’s a frightening piece, the smoldering center that this Andante represents! In this foreshortened dramatic narrative one finds unrolling all manner of contradictions that might summon up ideas of death: hopelessness, revulsion, oppression, celestial consolation and certainty of rebirth.”
You may choose to go that far or not, but something profound certainly inhabits this movement, one of the few slow movements in Mozart’s concerto output to be cast in a minor key. This movement’s variations are in no way garden variety, and Mozart even takes the imaginative step of surrounding one of them with episodes unrelated to the principal theme, yielding something of a rondo flavor. The first of these “interloping episodes” is for winds alone, and the second casts the spotlight on interplay between the flute and bassoon; neither manages to dispel the sadness.
But the finale does. Its rollicking “hunting-tune” theme might have seemed vaguely familiar to its first listeners, since it bears a resemblance to the corresponding theme in Mozart’s B-flat major Piano Concerto (K.450) introduced not quite two years earlier. An ensuing orchestral interlude again gives prominence to the winds, and this delivers us to the doorway of a second major theme. Mozart is always full of surprises, and here the music grinds practically to a halt, with the strings patiently repeating accompaniment chords until the soloist enters to whisper its unassuming theme—less a tune than a “search for a theme,” you might say--with extreme insouciance. As the movement proceeds we find two passages in which the piano’s rapid figuration suddenly reduces to single long notes that mark the harmonic trajectory of the passage. Here Mozart basically asks the soloist either to continue the preceding figuration in a way that agrees with those harmonies or improvise something that would accomplish the same thing.
The rapid finale temporarily yields to a slow section in 3/4 time, effectively a slow minuet. This Andantino cantabile section recalls the wind-music texture and the introspective spirit of the second movement. This interlude is not quite so despairing as the Andante had been. It is again “Countess Almaviva” music, but now it suggests the Countess from the end of Figaro, drawing from her reservoir of immeasurable grace to forgive her philandering husband. It leaves us perhaps a touch sadder, and surely wiser, as we return to the Allegro and further outpouring of melody. After such a super-abundance of musical generosity we would hardly expect what greets us on the final page. A long and admiring volume could be written about Mozart’s codas—an area in which he is simply without equal—and at least a paragraph of that book would have to be devoted to the false conclusion of this finale. Thumping chords are undercut by the gentle notes the strings had played earlier in their moment of quiet patience, and then a reminiscence of the piano’s “search for a theme”—and only then the dash to the real finish line.
—James M. Keller
More About the Music
Recordings: David Fray, with Jaap van Zweden and the Philharmonia Orchestra (Virgin Classics) | Murray Perahia as soloist and conductor, with the English Chamber Orchestra (Sony) | Alfred Brendel with Charles Mackerras conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Philips, available through arkivmusic.com) | András Schiff with Sandor Végh conducting the Salzburg Mozarteum Camerata Academica (Decca, available through arkivmusic.com) | Mitsuko Uchida with Jeffrey Tate conducting the English Chamber Orchestra (Philips)
Reading: Mozart and his Piano Concertos, by Cuthbert M. Girdlestone (Dover) | A Companion to Mozart’s Piano Concertos, by Arthur Hutchings (Oxford University Press) | Mozart: A Musical Biography, by Konrad Küster (Oxford University Press) | Mozart: A Cultural Biography, by Robert W. Gutman (Harcourt) | The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia, edited by Cliff Eisen and Simon P. Keefe (Cambridge University Press) | The Mozart Compendium: A Guide to Mozart’s Life and Music, edited by H.C. Robbins Landon (Schirmer)