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8.571306 - MOZART, W.A.: Piano Concertos Nos. 13 and 17 (Biret Concerto Edition, Vol. 6)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Piano Concerto No. 13 in C major, K. 415 • Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K. 453


The only son of Leopold Mozart, later Vice-Kapellmeister at the court of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in 1756. His gifts were realised and developed by his father, leading to concert tours in childhood that took the Mozart family to musical centres throughout Europe, bringing contact with leading connoisseurs and a wider public. At home once more in adolescence, he found that his native Salzburg offered limited opportunities and in 1777 he left his position in the archiepiscopal musical establishment, where his father had long been employed, with an endeavour to find a suitable place abroad, but in the event neither Mannheim nor Paris had anything to offer commensurate with his perceived abilities. In 1781 he secured his dismissal from Salzburg and settled in Vienna, without the security of a patron or the immediate care thitherto exercised by his father. The last ten years of Mozart’s life, spent in Vienna, brought initial success as a composer and performer, and some disappointment, as the decade drew on and financial problems multiplied. The promise of a change in his material fortunes came in the last year of his life, before his sudden death in the winter of 1791.

The solo concerto had become, during the eighteenth century, an important vehicle for composer-performers. Mozart wrote 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 wrote half a dozen piano concertos, the last of these for two pianos in 1779, 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of the eighteenth century also brought considerable changes in keyboard instruments, as the harpsichord was gradually superseded by the fortepiano or pianoforte, with its hammer action, an instrument capable of dynamic nuances impossible on the older instrument, while the hammer-action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.

Writing to his father in Salzburg on 28 December 1782, Mozart, full of hope and enthusiasm, describes the set of three piano concertos that he was to announce in January for his proposed subscription concerts, works that were to be a happy medium between the easy and the difficult, brilliant and pleasing, without being empty, with elements that would afford satisfaction not only to the knowledgeable, but provide pleasure to the less perceptive, although they would not know why. He was busy at the same time as a teacher and performer, while completing a piano arrangement of his German opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail, which had proved very successful when it had been staged at the Burgtheater in July. At the same time he had started work setting an ode on Gibraltar, written by a Jesuit, commissioned by a Hungarian lady, and never completed. On 15 January subscriptions were solicited in the Wiener Zeitung for the three concertos, with optional wind parts, allowing performance also with the accompaniment of only a string quartet. Money was slow in coming in, and in April Mozart was writing to the publisher Sieber in Paris offering the three concertos, which he claimed could be performed with full orchestra, the French preference, with oboes and horns, or simply with four-part string accompaniment. The concertos, K. 413–415, were published in 1785 by Artaria in Vienna.

The third concerto of the set, in C major, written early in 1783, was first performed in the presence of the Emperor at a concert in the Burgtheater on 23 March 1783 devoted entirely to the music of Mozart. The programme also included operatic and concert arias, one sung by Aloisia Lange, the Haffner Symphony, and the early D major Piano Concerto, with Mozart as soloist. He played the C major Concerto again at a Burgtheater concert a week later, once more in the presence of the Emperor, these royal occasions allowing the addition of trumpets and drums and a pair of bassoons to the orchestra. The opening would hardly have met with approval in Paris, which prided itself on the premier coup d’archet, a phrase that Mozart found ridiculous enough. Instead the first violins enter alone, imitated by the second violins and then by violas, cellos and double basses. The movement has a larger element of counterpoint than in earlier concertos, and allows the soloist greater chances for display. Originally Mozart had contemplated a C minor slow movement instead of the present F major Andante, from which trumpets and drums are, according to general custom, omitted. The final rondo is introduced by the soloist, who follows the orchestral extension of the principal theme with an unexpected Adagio in C minor, its profounder implications dispelled by the return of the rondo theme. The movement has a final section which brings surprising further development and a reappearance of the Adagio before the work comes to an end.

In 1784 Mozart found himself much in demand in Vienna as a performer. His mornings, he explained to his father, by way of excuse for writing to him so infrequently, were taken up with pupils and nearly every evening with playing, and for his performances he was obliged to provide new music. The Piano Concerto in G major, K. 453, was the fourth of six written during the year, and bears the date 12 April in the index of his compositions that Mozart had begun to keep. It was written for his pupil Barbara von Ployer, who played it during a concert at her father’s summer residence in June, an occasion to which Mozart had invited the composer Paisiello to hear both his pupil and this and other new compositions.

The concerto is scored for flute, with pairs of oboes, bassoons and horns and the usual strings. The opening orchestral exposition brings its own surprising shift of tonality before the entry of the soloist with the first subject and a movement that continues with occasional darkening of colour and with a miraculous interweaving of wind instruments with the rest of the orchestra to which they are no longer an optional addition. The C major slow movement, an Andante rather than an Adagio, as Mozart stresses in his letters home, opens with an orchestral statement of the principal theme, followed by brief contrapuntal interplay between the wind instruments, the soloist leading the theme into a darker mood. The concerto ends with a movement of which the principal theme was apparently echoed by Mozart’s pet starling, transcribed into the notebook in which he was keeping his accounts and writing exercises in English, with the comment Das war schön! The theme, with all the simplicity of a folk-song, is followed by five variations and an extended coda. Original cadenzas survive for the first two movements.

Keith Anderson

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