Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Wölfl - Piano Concerto No. 5 In C Major 'Grand Concerto Militaire'

 Joseph Wölfl studied music with Leopold Mozart and Michael Haydn in his hometown of Salzburg and gave his first public performance as a violin soloist when he was seven years old, but he took the piano as his main instrument and went on to become one of the most well-known virtuosos of his time.

He moved to Vienna in 1790 and he must have cut an impressive figure as he walked to the piano to perform as he was over six feet tall. He had massive hands, some contemporaries said he could span a thirteenth. The Vienna of the 1790's was a city bursting with pianists that wanted to make a name for themselves, and the way to do that was to earn a reputation by playing in the salons of  upper class citizens and royalty that lived in Vienna. These pianists were expected to play their own compositions, but an even greater distinction was how well the pianist could improvise. Pianists would create music on the spot from themes given to them by members of the audience or a theme of their own creation. This ability was a large part of the music scene for many years. Bach, Handel, and Mozart were masters of improvisation, but the pianist with the highest reputation in the skill of improvisation in late 18th century Vienna was Beethoven.

Piano improvisation became something of a spectator sport, for rival pianists would engage in competitions with each other, and the audience would determine the winner.  These competitions are the ancestors of the cutting competitions of jazz and blues pianists that began in the 1920's and are still done on occasion.

There are documented examples of Beethoven taking part in these competitions, and he always was determined to be the better improviser.  In 1799 Wölfl engaged in a competition of this sort with Beethoven, who created his usual furor with his skills. Wölfl's reputation (and probably his pride as well) was hurt by the loss and he soon left Vienna for Paris. He ended up in London where he remained until his death in 1812. The 5th concerto was written while he was in London. It is in three movements:

I. Allegro - In the highly competitive market of music in early 19th century Europe, many compositions had the words great, grand, or other such superlatives in their titles.  As Wölfl was nothing if not competitive as well as self-promoting this concerto followed suit. The military designation in the title refers to the trumpet solo that ushers in the first theme which also is in the spirit of a military march.  The secondary theme  changes the military march feeling to a slightly gentler one in feeling and rhythm.  The piano enters with the march theme and expands upon it as well as the second theme. There is added material for the piano that was not heard in the beginning section of the exposition. The march theme is developed fully until the orchestra quotes the march theme at the beginning of the recapitulation. The piano repeats themes with the obligatory key changes.  Wölfl doesn't leave the cadenza to the whim of the soloist as he writes it out in full. After the cadenza, the orchestra finishes the movement in the mood of the military march without the piano.

II. Andante -  The piano begins he movement with a simply decorated melody. The orchestra takes up the tune until the piano reenters in a minor key episode that leads back to the mellow feeling of the beginning. The soloist plays florid, decorative figures as the movement winds down. The third movement begins without a break.

III. Finale: Allegro -  A catchy tune begins the finale. This tune is heard primarily in the piano. A second theme is played by the orchestra. The piano enters with another theme, a brief key change is followed by the second theme in the orchestra and piano. A short cadenza by the piano leads to the orchestra and piano playing the first theme one more time, after which the piano briefly expands on a theme. The tempo quickens and the orchestra ends the finale without the piano.

Wölfl's 5th Piano Concerto is not typical of one written by a virtuoso pianist in that it is not outwardly brilliant for effect. While the piano has plenty to do, the orchestra is almost an equal partner.  Wölfl's piano concertos (he wrote 7 of them) have been compared to Mozart's but he is a minor composer compared to Mozart or the man that shamed him in defeat to leave Vienna, but his music is well written and worth an occasional listen.

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