Mozart: Concerto No. 24 in C Minor for Piano and Orchestra, K.491

JOANNES CHRISOSTOMUS WOLFGANG GOTTLIEB MOZART, who began to call himself Wolfgango Amadeo about 1770 and Wolfgang Amadè in 1777 (but never Wolfgang Amadeus except in jest, and in the combination “Wolfgangus Amadeus Mozartus”), was born in Salzburg, Austria on January 27, 1756, and died in Vienna on December 5, 1791. He completed his C minor Concerto in Vienna on March 24, 1786, and is thought to have led the premiere from the keyboard on April 7 at the Burgtheater in Vienna. Artur Schnabel was the first to perform this music with the San Francisco Symphony, with Pierre Monteux conducting, in March 1948. The most recent SFS performances, in April 2009, featured pianist Piotr Anderszewski, with Stéphane Denève conducting. Mozart’s score calls for an orchestra of flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. The composer left no cadenzas for this work. In these concerts, Till Fellner plays his own cadenzas.  Performance time: about thirty minutes.

Mozart composed his C minor Piano Concerto No. 24 little more than a month before the premiere of Le nozze di Figaro. He was engaged in writing several other major pieces (in addition to numerous less imposing ones) at about the same time. Apart from Figaro,his plate was full with the Piano Concertos Nos. 22 (in E-flat major, K.482, completed on December 16) and 23 (in A major, K.488, completed on March 2). Merely citing these works makes the point that Mozart was at the summit of his creative genius in the three-month span between February and April 1786; that one could make a similar claim for other three-month periods in the last decade of his life reminds us of the exorbitance of his talent, which ultra-familiarity sometimes invites us to take for granted.

The C minor Piano Concerto stands a world apart from both of the charmed concertos that preceded it. Beautiful, justly loved pieces that they are, they would not have ruffled the feathers of music lovers. Formally, they both adhere to what audiences expect of a “typical” Classical concerto, which the defiant onslaught of the C minor does not. The Mozart biographer Alfred Einstein wrote: “It is hard to imagine the expression on the faces of the Viennese public when on 7 April 1786 Mozart played this work at one of his subscription concerts. Perhaps they contented themselves with the Larghetto, which moves in regions of the purest and most affecting tranquility, and has a transcendent simplicity of expression.” In fact, Mozart’s contemporaries left no surviving impressions of this work or of the concert at which it was most likely premiered. The evening was the last in a series of annual benefit concerts (meaning that the box-office receipts would benefit the composer) that Mozart had given in Vienna since 1783. It is possible that on that occasion he also played his A major Concerto No. 23, or maybe all three of his most recent piano concertos, but no documentation remains to shed light on the details. Whatever other pieces were on the program, we can be sure that they could only have hoisted into greater relief the distinct character of the C minor Piano Concerto.

The brooding darkness of this work makes it unique among Mozart’s concertos. Only one other is in a minor key—No. 20 in D minor (K.466, of 1785)--and that one, though a favorite of ensuing generations of emotionally susceptible Romantics, actually ends with more than a whiff of major-key merriment. Not so No. 24 (the C minor), whose overriding sentiment might be described as despairing. Of course, the display of despair is never raw; we can depend on Mozart to temper it with a certain measure of elegance. In so doing, he renders it all the more poignant.

This is the only Mozart piano concerto to use both oboes and clarinets; in fact, it is the largest orchestra he ever used in a piano concerto. It’s clear that he planned this piece “big” from its very conception, as it is the only one of his large-scale mature works in which he set down the score on manuscript paper pre-ruled to sixteen staves. Mozart uses his forces to splendid effect, employing the winds both as soloists and as a choir to yield a fully “symphonic” texture. The mature Mozart always made telling use of wind instruments for highlighting textures and adding irresistible bits of contrapuntal commentary. Here, especially in the second movement, the entire wind section takes on an almost concertante role.

The jagged principal theme of the Allegro, intoned by the strings and bassoon at the outset, is so harmonically rich that all twelve notes of the chromatic scale are touched on by the beginning of the eleventh measure (perhaps a dozen seconds into the piece). One could contemplate the opening at length without reaching a limit to one’s appreciation of its melodic contour, rhythmic propulsion, and overall balance. Indeed, listeners encounter this material a great deal in the course of the movement, as the secondary subjects are so slightly represented as to seem hardly even secondary: a descending minor scale typically played by wind instruments, plus two melodic ideas that are little more than brief motifs. The large dose of chromaticism administered at the beginning foreshadows the sort of tonal adventure Mozart will investigate in the course of the movement. Passages sometimes slip ambiguously between the minor and the major modes, cadences prove elusive, harmonically exotic intervals such as the minor second and minor sixth take on structural importance.

Nothing about this opening movement is really “normal” in a Mozartian context. Even its 3/4 meter is highly unusual. This movement is bound together by such a unity of mood that even several passages in E-flat major that might sound sunny in another context hold out little spirit of hope here. Despite the power of this Allegro, it ends not grandly but instead dies away in a despondent whimper, with the piano tracing arpeggios over the pianissimo exhalations of the orchestra. Listeners familiar with Beethoven’s C minor Piano Concerto, his Third, will realize to what extent the later composer was strongly influenced by this opening movement when he set pen to paper. Indeed, Beethoven was a great admirer of this piece.

After sketching a few measures of a second movement, Mozart broke off and began fresh with the music that has come down to us as a haven of repose in this troubled work, though it is no less serious than what surrounds it. E-flat major is the dominant key, but even here somber C minor creeps in from time to time. The principal melody is both simple and complex, after Mozart’s inimitable fashion, and the orchestration (as mentioned earlier) displays masterful integration of the piano with the winds. The rondo form, with its easy-to-follow alternation of a principal melody with contrasting episodes, was a favorite structure for high-spirited Classical finales. In yet another brave act of imagination, Mozart here plumbs the form’s possibilities by relaxing it to a slow tempo, and then rounds off the proceedings with one of his trademark codas that blithely threatens to outshine everything that has come before.

Having just used up his rondo quotient, Mozart turns to a different option for his finale: the theme-and-variations. Again, he sets himself a challenge. Though he wrote reams of theme-and-variation sets in the course of his career, he almost never used that form in the minor mode. This concluding Allegretto is cast as a theme with eight variations, and its tonal scheme is far from conventional. In most of the variations, woodwind instruments state the melody (or a rather free adaptation of it) before the piano does. Two of the variations are in major keys, but these sections lift the troubled mood only fleetingly. For his final variation, Mozart has the piano break into 6/8 meter, a last chance for a switch to the major mode and at least a token confirmation that happiness is bound to triumph in the end. But no such change is forthcoming, and what would otherwise be a rollicking race to the finish sounds embittered, with both the soloist and the orchestra maintaining their unremitting gravity to the end.

James M. Keller

This note appeared originally in different form in the program book of the New York Philharmonic and is reprinted with permission, © New York Philharmonic.

More About the Music
Recordings: Richard Goode with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (Nonesuch)  |  Mitsuko Uchida with Jeffrey Tate conducting the English Chamber Orchestra (Philips)  |  Murray Perahia with the English Chamber Orchestra (CBS/Sony)  |  Malcolm Bilson, playing a period piano, with John Eliot Gardiner conducting the English Baroque Soloists (Deutsche Grammophon Archiv)

Reading: Mozart: A Cultural Biography, by Peter Gutman (Harcourt)  |  Mozart: A Musical Biography, by Konrad Küstler (Oxford)  |  The Mozart Compendium: A Guide to Mozart’s Life and Music, edited by H.C. Robbins Landon (Schirmer)  |  Mozart and his Piano Concertos, by Cuthbert Girdlestone (Dover)  |  A Companion to Mozart’s Piano Concertos, by Arthur Hutchings (Oxford)