Thursday, November 21, 2013

Mozart: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in D minor, K. 466

Richard Taruskin echoes many others in making the point that great works of music, such as the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies of Beethoven, have a reception history that colors the way we hear them. I suppose that is true, though I resist the idea that we are helpless victims of this history. I like to believe that every time we listen to a piece of music we have the opportunity at least to hear it afresh. Perhaps this comes from my experience as a performer. After all, life would be very dull if every time you played a particular piece it was the same as the last time you played it.

Sometimes the reputation of a piece of music almost appears to overshadow it. In the case of the Mozart D minor concerto, it seems to make Charles Rosen almost incoherent:
It is not a work, of course, that is much discussed (it excites no controversy) or much imitated; nor is it the favorite Mozart concerto of many musicians, just as no one's favorite Leonardo is the Mona Lisa. Like the G minor Symphony and Don Giovanni, the D minor Concerto may be said to transcend its own excellence. [The Classical Style, p. 228]
What does it even mean to say that a piece might "transcend its own excellence"? But Rosen also makes some useful observations. He notes the brilliant way the climax of the first movement is set up with a series of finely controlled rhythmic transitions. He also comments that:
No concerto before K. 466 exploits so well the latent pathetic nature of the form--the contrast and struggle of one individual voice against many.
This in particular had a large influence on the way Beethoven approached the piano concerto. This was the Mozart concerto that he chose to perform himself and he even composed a cadenza for it. It was certainly his favorite Mozart concerto.

This was one of the pieces that established Mozart's reputation in the 19th century and later as one of, if not the, great composer. Ironically, given how rarely Mozart used the minor mode, it is precisely those pieces that later generations idolized. The minor mode for Mozart was an extreme and one that, for the Romantics, established him as a Romantic composer. In the view of near-contemporaries like E. T. A. Hoffman, Mozart and Beethoven were the first Romantics.

The first movement opens with an intense and energetic theme with syncopated accompaniment:

The piano, when it enters, avoids all the rhythmic instability of that opening and presents an entirely new theme with octave leaps:

The slow movement, a Romance in B flat major (the flat submediant), opens with the piano solo:

But there is a dramatic middle section in G minor that reflects the tragic mood of the first movement:

A number of years ago Malcolm Bilson, accompanied by John Eliot Gardiner conducting the English Baroque Soloists, did a very fine recording of all the Mozart concertos and luckily, at least for now, this one is available on YouTube.

We should be grateful for that wonderful performance which is undoubtedly infinitely superior to that of the first performance on February 10, 1785. Mozart's father, Leopold, arrived in Vienna that very afternoon and tells us (in a letter to Wolfgang's sister Nannerl) that the orchestral parts were being copied as he arrived and that Mozart did not actually have the opportunity to "play through" (i.e. rehearse) the last movement! We tend to forget that most performances in the 18th century were given after only one rehearsal--and sometimes less! There is a letter by Haydn requesting that a new symphony of his be rehearsed at least once before the concert.

So, as Taruskin has pointed out in a number of places, the irony of very faithful (Werktreue, in German) performances such as the one above, with Malcolm Bilson playing on a reproduction of Mozart's own concert fortepiano and the whole orchestra playing on original instruments, is that the final result is almost certainly nothing like the original premiere!

Well, pace Charles Rosen, we seem to have found something to discuss about this concerto after all...

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