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8.550204 - MOZART: Piano Concertos Nos. 23 and 24
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791)
Piano Concerto No.23 in A Major, K. 488
The solo concerto had become, during the eighteenth century, an important vehicle for composer-performers, a form of music that had developed from the work of Johann Sebastian Bach, through his much admired sons Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian, to provide a happy synthesis of solo and orchestral performance. Mozart w rote his first numbered piano concertos, arrangements derived from other composers, in 1767, undertaking further arrangements from Johann Christian Bach a few years later. His first attempt at writing a concerto, however, had been at the age of four or five, described by a friend of the family as a smudge of notes, although, his father claimed, very correctly composed. In Salzburg as an adolescent Mozart w rote half a dozen piano concertos, the last of these for two pianos after his return from Paris. The remaining seventeen piano concertos were written in Vienna, principally for his own use in the subscription concerts that he organised there during the last decade of his life.
The second half of the eighteenth century also brought considerable changes in keyboard instruments, as the harpsichord was gradually superseded by the fortepiano or pianoforte, with its hammer action, an instrument capable of dynamic nuances impossible on the older instrument, while the hammer-action clavichord from which the piano developed had too little carrying power for public performance. The instruments Mozart had in Vienna, by the best contemporary makers, had a lighter touch than the modern piano, with action and leather-padded hammers that made greater delicacy of articulation possible, among other differences. They seem well suited to Mozart's own style of playing, by comparison with which the later virtuosity of Beethoven seemed to some contemporaries rough and harsh.
Mozart completed his Piano Concerto in A major, K. 488, on 2nd March 1786. Like its predecessor in E flat, K. 482, it was designed for use in a series of three subscription concerts that Mozart had arranged for part of the winter season at a time when he was busy with the composition of his first Italian opera for Vienna, Le nozze di Figaro - the first if we discount the abortive La finta semplice of 1768. The commission was a distinct honour for a German composer, since the re-established Italian opera was dominated by Italian composers, who might be supposed to have had more skill in the art. Mozart mentions the concerto, among others, in a letter to Sebastian Winter, a former servant in Leopold Mozart's employ, who had entered the service of Prince von Förstenberg in Donaueschingen as friseur some twenty years earlier, and now sought to acquire compositions by Mozart for his master. He adds, while seeking a permanent stipend from the prince in return for whatever compositions he requires, that if clarinets are not. available in Donaueschingen the clarinet parts of the A major Concerto may be played on violin and viola.
The strings open the concerto, echoed by the wind, and all lead forward to the string announcement of a second subject that has a hint, at least, of sadder things. This material is duly expanded by the soloist, but with less freedom than has often been the case in earlier concertos of this kind. The central development starts with a new theme, capped by the soloist and later varied and extended, before the recapitulation, with its cadenza by the composer.
The slow movement of the concerto, in F sharp minor, opens with the soloist and the principal theme, one imbued with melancholy. The wind introduces a more cheerful theme, to which the second clarinet adds a characteristic accompaniment, before the soloist takes up the same strain, before the return of the main theme of the movement. The final rondo is prodigal in its invention and energy, largely dispelling the sorrows hinted in the first movement and openly expressed in the second.
The second of the two piano concertos that Mozart wrote in a minor key, the Concerto in C minor, K. 491, was completed on 24th March 1786. On 7th April Mozart gave his last concert in the Burgtheater, the third of a series, including in the programme the new concerto. At the beginning of May his new opera Le nozze di Figaro was performed for the first time, while the previous month had brought a new one-act Singspiel, Der Schauspieldirektor; performed at the palace of Schönbrunn on 7th February together with the successful Salieri Italian comedy Prima la musica poi le parole.
The C minor Concerto is scored for clarinets and oboes, as well as flute, pairs of bassoons, horns, trumpets and drums, and strings. The work opens with the strings announcing an ominous theme, the inspiration for Beethoven's later C minor Piano Concerto, the chief substance of the orchestral exposition. The soloist introduces a new strain, before joining the orchestral statement of the principal theme, which is now developed. The movement continues in a mood that is seldom broken, even by the tranquillity of a second theme, later to be tragically transformed. The second movement, marked Larghetto on the autograph in a hand other than the composer's, is in the key of E flat major and intervening episodes are framed by the principal melody, declared at the outset by the soloist. The music moves soon into sadder key of C minor, led by the woodwind, brightened by the serenity of a later episode, before the final return of the opening. The final movement is in the form of a set of variations, the first transformation entrusted to the soloist, followed by the woodwind, to which the clarinets add their own special character. The eighth and final variation, introduced by the soloist, leads to the final section of the work, the minor key maintained to the very end.
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