Thursday, March 26, 2020

Mozart - Piano Concerto No. 20 In D Minor K. 466

The world of modern classical music can never know how it was years ago when there was less of a distinction in public music. To be sure, there were innovations and fads as well as each era having its own ‘hits’ in the arts. Mozart himself was a popular performer and composer, at least in the realm of Vienna. His operas were popular, with arias from them becoming popular even with people that did not attend the opera, for a good tune then was just as appealing as it is now. He composed piano music, and chamber music for the playing enjoyment of amateur musicians as well. But it was the piano concerto that Mozart used for showcasing his own performing skills. 

The first 4 of the numbered 27 concertos are arrangements for orchestra and keyboard of other composer’s works. These as well as the next 6 concertos were written while he was in Salzburg. When he moved to Vienna, the writing and performing of his piano concertos contributed much to his making his living as a freelance musician. He commented upon his the first three concertos he wrote in Vienna in a letter to his father in 1782: 
These concertos are a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult; they are very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being vapid. There are passages here and there from which the connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why.... In order to win applause one must write stuff which is so inane that a coachman could sing it, or so unintelligible that it pleases precisely because no sensible man can understand it.
 Clearly the concertos were written first and foremost to be pleasing to the public, and they were. Mozart held subscription concerts where he played them. As he was busy with other things as well, sometimes the music was written down at the last moment, at least the orchestral parts. Mozart saved time by not writing down the solo part, and played it from memory. For these concerts, Mozart sold the tickets, hired the musicians for the orchestra, and even had his piano moved from his apartment to the concert venue. There was time for only a hasty rehearsal, if there was one at all, and Mozart conducted from the keyboard. Musicologists believe that he must have filled in the harmonies at the keyboard when he was otherwise not playing to make up for any deficiencies in the orchestra due to lack of rehearsal or personnel. 

I. Allegro - Piano Concerto No. 20 is the first piano concerto Mozart wrote in a minor key. Beethoven admired the work, and kept it in his repertoire and wrote cadenzas for it. The romantic era went for the dramatic and passionate in music, and much of Mozart’s music was neglected. This concerto is an exception. 

It was his most popular work. And it isn’t a mystery why, as the movement begins quietly in the strings with the chord of D minor in a syncopated rhythm that adds a sense of tension. The music builds until the rapid motive that was played by the basses ascends to the violins as the 2nd violins and violas add more weight with tremolos as the winds fill out the harmony. A second theme appears in the woodwinds but is soon taken over by the initial theme. The piano enters with a solo passage that leads up to the first theme being passed from strings to piano as it is elaborated on. The second theme makes a brief appearance and leads to a new theme in F major. This theme is also elaborated upon until the piano repeats its lead in theme that signals the beginning of the development section. 

The lead-in theme plays against the opening dramatic string syncopations, and then the orchestra has a dramatic exchange that leads to the beginning of the recapitulation. The piano engages the orchestra in the change within the repeats of elements in the beginning of the movement. There are no seams that show in this movement. The various themes and motives are discernable, but blend together into a whole that not only makes musical sense, but profound musical sense.

The music gives room for the customary cadenza; the one by Beethoven is played in the performance linked. This gives an opportunity to hear one master commenting on another’s work. After the cadenza, the orchestra has the final word as the movement comes to a quietly dramatic close. 

II. Romanze - The movement begins with the solo piano playing a gracefully decorated melody in B-flat major. The music continues in a gentle and calm mood, until a middle section in G minor that gets louder and faster. After the middle section’s passionate outbursts, the music returns to the melody in B-flat major and calmly makes its way to a peaceful close. 

III. Rondo: Allegro assai - The movement begins with the piano playing an ascending figure in D minor, known as a Mannheim rocket. The music restless and makes use of the syncopated rhythm in the strings of the first movement. The movement keeps the tension from going too far by insertions of other motives and keys in more quiet music. The cadenza is reached, and then the piano gets more optimistic as it shifts to the key of D major. The concerto has gone from the darkness of D minor to the light of D major, and ends in that bright key. 

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