Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Concerto Guide: Mozart, Concerto for Piano in C major, K. 467

Out of the wealth of later Mozart piano concertos I am going to pick two to include in this series, this one and its companion, the D minor concerto, K. 466. In some ways these two great concertos can be compared to the two greatest symphonies by Mozart, no. 40 in G minor and no. 41 in C major. Like the Symphony No. 41, the C major Concerto, K. 467, is a display of orchestral grandeur. Here is the first half of the first movement played by Friedrich Gulda and the Vienna Philharmonic conduced by Claudio Abbado:

I am going to depart from my usual procedure, which is to do a brief analysis of the first movement and then throw you on your own devices. Instead, I am going to take a closer look at the second movement, the Andante, the use of which in a film quite a number of years ago has given this concerto its occasional nickname of the "Elvira Madigan" concerto.

The Andante movement is an aria with an extraordinarily poignant melody over a throbbing accompaniment in triplets, muted, and pizzicato bass. Here is how it begins:

Click to enlarge

I am just showing the first violin melody and the string accompaniment, leaving out the wind parts. This is the whole of the opening phrase, except for the last note, an F, which is on the next line. Here is just the violin melody:

Here is a performance with Alfred Brendel:

Let's just look at that opening violin melody. It is long, long phrase, about a minute and 20 seconds long, that is divided into a number of shorter phrases. The whole phrase is, not counting the first measure of accompaniment, twenty-one measures long! It divides up (as shown in the last score example above) into 3 + 3 + 2 + 2 + 5 (1+1+1+1+1) + 3 + 3. This is the kind of extraordinary phrase that I doubt anyone but Mozart could have written. It is precisely balanced with the climax right at the beginning of the 5 measure phrase. The 3 + 3 at the beginning returns at the end, but there is no note repetition! This unique blend of irregular with symmetry and precision with freedom feels as if it is improvised, if that can be imagined.

Look at the leaps and range of the melody: in the middle it leaps down two octaves plus a third. Twice. Out of many extraordinary moments in this movement I want to pick just one more. For only one brief moment at mm 71-72, the throbbing triplets cease and we hear just the winds and piano execute a modulation to A flat major, the flat mediant (this is at around the 4:30 mark in the clip). This sets up the beginning of the recapitulation of the opening melody. In that flat mediant (the key of the movement is F, the subdominant). UPDATE: I originally said "submediant"! Corrected.

Have no worries, though. Mozart manages to find his way back to the tonic F by the end of the movement.

One other subtlety: that opening melody gets some of its power from the feeling of quickening. This is achieved by progressively shortening the phrase section lengths from three measures to two measures to one measure (in the large group of five). Then all is resolved by the return, at the end, to the three measure grouping. It is hard to imagine a more delicately constructed phrase. And one that sounds to the listener entirely spontaneous. Such is the magic of Mozart...

Let's end with a performance of the whole concerto. Here is Maurizio Pollini with the Orchestra filarmonica della Scala conducted by Riccardo Muti:


Vic W said...

Hi Bryan,
Thanks for the great post.
Happy New Year,

Rickard Dahl said...

Interesting phrase structure indeed, it is amazing when you think about it. It is also interesting to note that the slow movement is shorter than the other movements (both in the number of measures and the time it takes to play) (which is less usual). Either way, the other movements are also nice.

I've noticed that the slow movement is stereotypically used in documentaries and such when things such as high art, great scientific progress or the nature of the universe are explained/described/presented. I guess it gives associations to great human progress or maybe it's the other way around (i.e. the associations come from the stereotypical use of the music).

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Vic. And welcome to the Music Salon!

Yes, this slow movement is a particularly fine one, which is probably why it has been used a lot in soundtracks. If you want a sonic symbol for civilization, this will do pretty well!