Mozart recorded February 10, 1785, as the date of completion of his Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor; it was premiered the following evening, with the composer at the piano, and with Wolfgang’s father Leopold in attendance. Leopold Mozart, visiting Vienna for the first time in twelve years (and, incidentally, for the last time before his death in 1787), wrote to his daughter, Nannerl, of hearing “an excellent new piano concerto by Wolfgang, on which the copyist was still at work when we got there, and your brother didn’t even have time to play through the rondo [in rehearsal] because he had to oversee the copying operation.”
The sense of urgency surrounding the circumstances of its premiere permeates the Concerto’s temperament as well. The opening Allegro departs from the well-heeled, Classical sensibility of Mozart’s other concerti of the fertile years of 1784–86, illustrating instead the Sturm und Drang aesthetic that would come to define the work of the composers of the following century. Its character anticipates that of such later, dramatically charged works as the Requiem and sections of Don Giovanni, also in D minor; the comparison to Don Giovanni may equally well apply to Mozart’s orchestration (notably, his crisply expressive use of the timpani) and, more broadly, the Concerto’s rhetorical heft.
The opening Allegro places the listener on edge right away with the agitated syncopation that begins the work. This restlessness scarcely abates over the course of the movement; even in brighter passages, the music seems to retain a jittery energy. Following the fire-and-brimstone close to the tutti exposition, the piano enters, introspectively; music critic Roger Dettmer marvels, “more than two centuries later it remains a miracle that the soloist never plays exactly what the orchestra sets forth in the exposition, despite a rock-solid sonata structure throughout.” This dimension of variance in the piano part lends it, at once, a compelling dynamism and a seeming instability—though, to be sure, one unwaveringly contained within an impeccable musical architecture. The movement’s development section moreover foreshadows Romanticism: the passagework in the piano—sweeping arpeggios, snaking through sustained chords in the ensemble—looks ahead to the no-holds-barred virtuosity of the piano writing of Robert Schumann, et al.
The second movement Romanza responds to the agita of the first movement with that inexpressible quality behind Arthur Schnabel’s famous remark that “Mozart is too easy for children and too difficult for adults.” It begins with a theme as utterly simple as it is sublime (and, nota bene, the music to which a defeated Salieri poignantly declares himself the “patron saint” of mediocrity at the end of Milos Forman’s film adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus). Two contrasting sections further illustrate Mozart’s inspired melodic gift.
The Allegro assai that concludes the Concerto returns to the sinister D-minor tonality of the first movement—but, within this foreboding realm, the wellspring of melody uncorked in the Romanza continues to flow. The exposition of the finale contains no fewer than five distinct melodic ideas (arguably more, depending on analytic interpretation), each leading organically to the next. The imaginative breadth on display here ultimately elevates the finale from the dire straits of D minor to a jubilant D-major finish. In its dramatic extremity, then, we continue to encounter Mozart’s penchant for the expressive extremes associated with a later generation. (It is no surprise that this Concerto held such great appeal for the young firebrand Beethoven, who performed the work often and even composed his own cadenzas to the first and third movements.)
Patrick Castillo ©2014
Mozart composed 27 piano concertos, the first at age eleven, and the last within a year of his death. His peak years in the genre were 1784 through 1786, when he unveiled a dozen new concertos at his popular concerts in Vienna. The Concerto No. 25 in C major marked the end of this streak; Mozart completed it on December 4, 1786 and probably premiered it the following day at an Advent concert held in a Viennese casino. Mozart did add two more concertos in his five remaining years, but performing became a much smaller part of his musical life. Opera came to occupy more of his time, especially after the success of The Marriage of Figaro in 1786, the first of three collaborations with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. When Mozart turned to large instrumental works in the following years, it was more with an eye toward publication, such as the two string quintets from 1787 and three symphonies from 1788.
There is a sense, in the Piano Concerto No. 25, that Mozart already had symphonies on his mind. On its surface, the concerto is expansive and majestic, trumpeting its grand intentions from the opening phrases. At the same time, there are complicated undertones, signaled by an early lapse into the minor mode. In many of the preceding concertos, the spirit of opera suffuses the music, with the piano and orchestra trading limber songs without words; here, the gestures and motives circulate with obsessive focus, foreshadowing the way Beethoven would ruminate on a single theme in his symphonies. (The Beethoven comparison gets a boost from a striking similarity between Mozart’s five-note rhythmic stamp, short-short-short-long-long, and the hook of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, short-short-short-long.) This rich musical discourse unfolds before the piano has played a note; the soloist finally enters gingerly, as if bashful at disturbing a symphony-in-progress. Some of the piano’s brightest moments come when it dances around the orchestra, content to decorate the margins of the ensemble’s symphonic thrust.
The central Andante movement establishes a veiled language of arpeggios and limited harmonies. Sporadic flurries of faster music arise like stifled giggles, counteracting the sanctity of the primary material. The Allegretto finale, coming after two profound movements, opts for carefree dancing. Mozart derived the opening theme from his 1781 opera Idomeneo, retaining the characteristic two-note lead-in of a gavotte dance.
Aaron Grad ©2013