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8.557881 - MOZART, W.A.: Piano Concertos Nos. 12, 13 and 14 (version for piano and string quartet) (Blocker, Biava Quartet)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
In the spring of 1781 Mozart was dismissed from Salzburg court service and took up permanent residence in Vienna, hoping to carve out a career for himself in a city that offered more opportunities for advancement than his hometown. The best route to success was to make his name as a keyboard player: “My speciality is too popular here for me not to be able to support myself,” he wrote to his father on 2 June 1781. “This is without doubt the land of the piano.” Almost immediately he set about collecting the local nobility as patrons, playing at their houses and giving them piano lessons. During the late spring and summer he also determined to present himself to the public as a composer—an adult composer, not the child prodigy Vienna remembered him as—and so he set to work on a collection of sonatas for keyboard with violin accompaniment, K.296 and K.376–380, which he published in December.
Unlike Paris and London, Vienna at the time did not support regular public concerts—the idea of a permanent orchestra outside of the court theatre would never have occurred to Mozart or to his contemporaries—and so there were few opportunities for him to shine in that most important virtuoso vehicle, the concerto. In fact concertos for keyboard were relatively uncommon in Vienna until later in the 1780s. So it was doubly enterprising of Mozart, when, beginning in the 1783/84 season, he organized his first subscription concerts, each of which featured him in a new work for keyboard and orchestra. Even earlier, in the winter of 1782/83, he thought to sell manuscript copies of his new concertos to the public on a subscription basis and to that end he took out an advertisement in the Wiener Zeitung for 15 January 1783: “Herr Kapellmeister Mozart herewith apprizes the highly honoured public of the publication of three new, recently finished pianoforte concertos. These three concertos…may be performed either with a large orchestra with wind instruments or merely a quattro, that is with 2 violins, 1 viola and violoncello…”. These were K.413, 414 and 415, composed that winter. Mozart’s scheme failed, however, and on 15 February 1783 he wrote to his patroness Baroness von Waldstatten that he was making “slow progress with the subscription of my concertos”. Sometime later, probably in the early summer of 1784, he sold the works to the Viennese dealer in manuscript music, Lorenz Lausch; an engraved edition was published by Artaria in March 1785. In the meantime, Mozart had performed the works on several occasions, notably at concerts by the singer Therese Teyber and possibly at a charity concert in December 1783 organized by a Viennese society that provided pensions for the widows and orphans of local musicians.
K.449, dated 9 February 1784, was composed by Mozart for his pupil Barbara Ployer. The daughter of a local tax collector, Franz Kajetan Ployer, she lived in Döbling, a suburb of Vienna, with her father’s cousin, Gottfried Ignaz von Ployer, a representative on the Education Commission and at the High Court of Justice as well as Salzburg court agent in Vienna. It is not known when Ployer played K.449—at the earliest known performance by her of a Mozart concerto, on 13 June, she probably played K.453, also written for her—but it is likely that Mozart himself gave the work at one of his private concerts at a local concert hall, the Trattnerhof, on 17, 24 or 31 March.
The two other concertos played by Mozart at these concerts were the newly-composed K.450 and K.451. But clearly K.449 was a different sort of work, something the composer himself noted in a letter to his father of 26 May 1784: “The one in E flat does not belong in this group.—This is a concerto of a very special kind and written more for a small orchestra than a large one . . .”. And this ties it closely to the earlier set, K.413–415. For although Mozart advertised them as performable with a string quartet—a claim sometimes dismissed as a marketing ploy—somewhere in his original conception of the works he may well have thought of them as chamber-like: unique among his concerto autographs, the lowest part of the C major Concerto, K.415, the most ‘heroic’ of the set, was originally assigned to a cello without double bass; what is more, the work’s trumpet and timpani parts were not part of the original conception, but added later. All three concertos, and K.449 as well, may therefore have originated as works performable in a variety of circumstances and scorings. (It is perhaps no coincidence that although it was completed in February 1784, the autograph of K.449 shows that it originated in the winter of 1782/83, at the same time as K.413–415.)
Certainly the works are more intimate than Mozart’s later ‘grand’ concertos and none more so than K.414. Not only is its original orchestration smaller than that of K.413 or K.415, consisting only of strings, oboes and horns, but its themes relate closely to other A major themes by Mozart, including those of the Piano Sonata K.331, the Clarinet Quintet, K.581, and the Piano Concerto, K.488, all of which can be characterized as gentle, at times even nostalgic. And nostalgia is surely the operative gesture in the slow movement of K.414, which is thought to be a tribute to his English mentor Johann Christian Bach: it includes a nearly exact quotation from Bach’s overture to La calamità dei cuori of 1763. Mozart had probably learned of Johann Christian’s death, on 1 January 1782, only shortly before the composition of K.414: on 10 April 1782 he wrote to Leopold, “I suppose you already know that the English Bach has died? What a loss to the musical world!”. K.413, on the other hand, can be characterized as ‘galant’, but it is no less important for that: together with its companions it sets out a new path in Mozart’s style. Gone is the overtly asymmetrical, harmonically overrich and often disturbingly intense style of the late Salzburg works such as the Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, K.364. Instead, it displays a leanness and precision, a feeling for clarity of articulation and forward motion that is infrequently encountered in the pre-1782 concertos. The concerto K.449 completes this picture by adding one more element to Mozart’s arsenal of new expressive gestures: overt counterpoint, which is especially prominent in the finale. The first two movements, though, also have their beauties: the opening Allegro vivace is remarkable for its exploitation of the ambiguity between major and minor, while the Andantino is the first of several luxurious, ornamental slow movements that are characteristic of his Viennese concertos on the whole.
It is no surprise that K.413, K.414 and K.449 were a success. Mozart himself described his concertos, especially the 1782/83 set, as “a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult; they are very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, natural without being vapid. There are passages here and there from which connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why “(letter of 28 December 1782).
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