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 completed the Piano Concerto in C major on December 4, 1786, and introduced it in Vienna that month. The work was first performed in the United States by Sebastian Bach Mills at New York’s Academy of Music on November 4, 1865, with Carl Bergmann conducting the Philharmonic Society Orchestra. Leon Fleisher was soloist in the first San Francisco Symphony performances, in January 1957, with Enrique Jordá conducting. In the most recent performances, in February 2012, Olivier Cavé was soloist and Rinaldo Alessandrini conducted. The score calls for an orchestra of two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, and strings. Jeremy Denk plays his own cadenzas. Performance time: about thirty minutes.
In just less than three years, Mozart wrote twelve piano concertos, a series of masterpieces to delight the mind, charm and seduce the ear, and pierce the heart—the ideal realization of what might be accomplished in the genre. K.503 is the end of that run.
We listen to K.503 and note how Mozart’s approach to the piano concerto has changed subtly. It seems less operatic than before, and more symphonic, imbued with unprecedented compositional richness. This is one of Mozart’s big trumpets-and-drums concertos, and the first massive gestures make its full and grand sonority known. But even so formal an exordium becomes a personal statement in Mozart’s hands—“cliché becomes event,” as Adorno says about Mahler—and across the seventh measure there falls for a moment the shadow of the minor mode. And when the formal proclamations are done, the music does indeed take off in C minor. Such harmonic—and expressive—ambiguities inform the whole movement. Mozart always likes those shadows, but new here are the unmodulated transitions from major to minor and back, the hardness of the chiaroscuro. The first solo entrance is one of Mozart’s most subtle and gently winsome. The greatest marvel of all is the development, brief but dense, with breathtaking range of harmony and an incredible intricacy of canonic writing. The piano has a delightful function in these pages, proposing ideas and new directions, but then settling back and turning into an accompanist who listens to the woodwinds execute what he has imagined. How keenly one senses Mozart’s own presence at the keyboard here!
The Andante is subdued, formal and a little mysterious at the same time, like a knot garden by moonlight, and remarkable, too, for the great span from its slowest notes to its fastest. For the finale, Mozart adapts a gavotte from his then five-year-old opera Idomeneo. In its courtly and witty measures there is nothing to prepare us for the epiphany of the episode in which the piano, accompanied by cellos and basses alone (a sound that occurs nowhere else in Mozart), begins a smiling and melancholy song that is continued by the oboe, the flute, the bassoon, and in which the cellos cannot resist joining. Lovely in itself, the melody grows into a music whose richness of texture and whose poignancy and passion astonish us. From that joy and pain Mozart redeems us by leading us back to his gavotte and thence into an exuberantly inventive, brilliant close.
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.
More About the Music
Recordings: Richard Goode with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (Nonesuch) | Leon Fleisher with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony) | Murray Perahia, who also conducts, with the English Chamber Orchestra (Perahia) | Mitsuko Uchida with Jeffrey Tate and the English Chamber Orchestra (Philips)
Reading: The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia, edited by Cliff Eisen and Simon P. Keefe (Cambridge University Press) | Mozart: A Musical Biography, by Konrad Küster (Oxford) | The Mozart Compendium: A Guide to Mozart’s Life and Music, edited by H.C. Robbins Landon (Schirmer) | Mozart: The Golden Years, by H.C. Robbins Landon (Schirmer) | Mozart: A Cultural Biography, by Robert W. Gutman (Harcourt) | Mozart: A Documentary Biography, by Otto Erich Deutsch (Oxford) | Mozart’s Symphonies: Context, Performance Practice, Reception, by Neal Zaslaw (Oxford)