Time for a modest reboot. (Now there’s an oxymoron!) For the next few months, this column will aim for brevity and clarity, offering shorter, more focused introductions to staples of the classical repertoire. In May, we’ll explore Mozart’s piano concertos. In June, there’ll be an overview of Italian bel canto opera. In July, who knows? At the end of each column, I’ll also look at one or two new recordings that have nothing to do with the Staple of the Month. We’ll call that little holdout “Et cetera.”

Mozart_(unfinished)_by_Lange_1782Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91) is considered one of the exemplars of capital-C Classical music, meaning all those poised, balanced, tuneful works that dominated the scene between about 1760 and 1800. They are called “Classical” because of their simplicity, order, and symmetry. They also made more use of folk and popular melodies and dance rhythms than did their 17th- and 18th-century predecessors.

Folk and popular song became a model—an ideal—for musicians in those years. This shines through not only in vocal works like Mozart’s operas (think of all the good tunes in The Magic Flute or The Marriage of Figaro) but also in string quartets, symphonies, and (of course) concertos.

Although Mozart is traditionally credited as composer of 27 piano concertos, his first such works were written with his father’s help. They are little more than arrangements of keyboard sonata movements by C. P. E. Bach, J. C. Bach, and others. Fun to hear, especially when compared with their source material, but not yet Mozart. For that we must turn to K. 175, written in 1773 when Herr M. was all of 17. This work has a special charm:

It is enlivening rather than joyful, very physical, robust and muscular, rather knockabout, without any of the melancholy which pierces through the music of Mozart’s Vienna years. No hidden depths . . . .

(Girdlestone, Mozart and His Piano Concertos, London 1948)

Here’s a taste of the first movement:

Mozart: Piano Concerto #5 In D, K 175 - 1. Allegro

It’s all about the rhythms—infinitely varied—and not so much the melodies, which are little more than serviceable. But what energy!

UchidaFrom this snippet we can also glean how Mozart combined Baroque concerto form with Classic sonata form. In a Vivaldi (i.e., Baroque) concerto, you get an alternation between ritornello (“that which returns,” a repeated motif or motifs usually played by the full ensemble) and solo sections (fresh, varied material from the soloist). In K. 175 the orchestra opens with the Hauptsatz or primary theme, quickly moves to a second tune (0'33"), and then gives way to the piano soloist’s entrance; together, pianist and orchestra repeat the Hauptsatz and then offer new material, modulating (at 1'33") from the home key (D major) to the dominant (A major), whence that second tune reappears (2'05") but in a new key. Thus we get rit.–solo–rit.–solo–rit. etc. à la Vivaldi, but also PTSK (primary theme, transition and/or modulation, second theme, closing gestures) as in the exposition of a sonata form. Mozart’s soloist—like Vivaldi’s—is free to bring in new music at any point (provided, of couse, that Mozart writes it for her!). As in any Classical symphony’s first movement, this Exposition is succeeded by a Development, and that by a Recapitulation: context, crisis, resolution.

Let’s fast-forward a few years. By the time young Mozart really got going, i.e., in 1777, he was having just as much fun violating those conventions as he had had learning them ten years earlier. Listen to the opening of Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major, K. 271:

Mozart: Piano Concerto #9 In E Flat, K 271, "Jeunehomme" - 1. Allegro

This was Mozart’s “Eroica.” What I mean is that with this work he stepped out of the era’s rank-and-file and asserted a very individual personality. No one else would have had the nerve to bring in the piano player in measure 2, before the introductory ritornello even got properly underway. (Typically the orchestra gets to play it all by themselves, as in K. 175.)

The themes have sharper profiles now. They’re easier to remember, better equipped to cast light and shade over the canvas. Throughout the movement, you’ll hear Mozart adjust colors by giving keyboard phrases to the orchestra and vice versa, or by changing (for example) the instrument that plays the graceful second tune:

Mozart: Piano Concerto #9 In E Flat, K 271, "Jeunehomme" - 1. Allegro

I also like the second movement of this concerto. It’s an aria for a very troubled leading lady: the eddying effects produced by the echoes of each phrase (as they ricochet from Violin I to Violin II, for example) suggest her anxious state of mind. You can almost see her pace the empty, darkened stage:

Mozart: Piano Concerto #9 In E Flat, K 271, "Jeunehomme" - 2. Andantino

Mozart wrote most of his piano concertos with himself in mind as soloist, although K. 271 was written for a touring female virtuosa—a “Mademoiselle Jeunehomme” we know almost nothing about. When he made his big leap to Vienna as a young man, his production of piano concertos increased prodigiously as well. After composing just three concertos for the 1782–83 season, he found himself in such demand that between 1784 and ’86 he wrote twelve more.

At first these Vienna concertos were less ambitious than the 1777 “Jeunehomme” concerto. In a letter to his father, Mozart explained his approach:

They are a happy medium between too hard and too easy—very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, natural, without lapsing into vapidity. There are passages here and there from which connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction, but they are written so that the non-connoisseurs cannot fail to be pleased even if they don’t know why.

Mozart was still getting to know his public. As time went on, he increasingly tested the stylistic and formal boundaries of the genre. During his peak years of concerto production, he often switched up crowd-pleasing simplicity with complex counterpoint or formal experimentation that confused the Viennese. (Hence that famous remark from Emperor Joseph II: “Too many notes, Mozart.”)

GardinerAmong the simpler products of those years, one of my favorites is Concerto No. 17 in G Major, K. 453. In his engaging essay on this concerto, the late Michael Steinberg related the story of Mozart’s pet starling: in May 1784 he paid the equivalent of $10 for a bird that could whistle the theme of K. 453’s finale. Or nearly whistle it, apparently. The starling had a habit of holding out the quarter-note G at the end of the first measure, turning the G’s that followed it into G-sharps. Here’s the theme:

Mozart: Piano Concerto #17 In G, K 453 - 3. Allegretto

What Mozart does with that little tune amounts to a textbook demonstration of how to develop a theme-and-variations. At first he just increases what we might call the rhythmic density:

Mozart: Piano Concerto #17 In G, K 453 - 3. Allegretto

Followed by yet more rhythmic density:

Mozart: Piano Concerto #17 In G, K 453 - 3. Allegretto

Mozart’s new emphasis on the woodwinds now gives way to a concertante highlight on individual instruments:

Mozart: Piano Concerto #17 In G, K 453 - 3. Allegretto

And that is succeeded by a minor-key lament:

Mozart: Piano Concerto #17 In G, K 453 - 3. Allegretto

Which is cast aside for a triumphant little march, both childlike and pompous:

Mozart: Piano Concerto #17 In G, K 453 - 3. Allegretto

It’s followed by a brief cadenza and a presto finale-within-the-finale that casts the theme aside entirely, an entirely fitting way to end this playful, delicate, but never less than masterly concerto.

Speaking of marches, they seem to be one of Mozart’s favorite “topics” in all his music, not excluding his concertos. The well-known Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467, opens with one:

Mozart: Piano Concerto #21 In C, K 467, "Elvira Madigan" - 1. Allegro Maestoso

K. 467 includes a deservedly beloved slow movement, famous since the 1960s because of its use in a popular Swedish film, Elvira Madigan:

Mozart: Piano Concerto #21 In C, K 467, "Elvira Madigan" - 2. Andante

Legendary CurzonMore about Mozart’s slow movements in a moment. We should say something about the minor-key concertos first. There are only two, No. 20 in D Minor (K. 466) and No. 24 in C Minor (K. 491). For the Classic era, minor keys were not a staple, not the daily bread of music-making they became in the hands of Beethoven and the Romantics. On the contrary, Mozart and Haydn thought of D minor, C minor et al. as special cases, reserving them as Sturm und Drang topics fit only for extremes of passion and confusion (e.g., Don Giovanni as a demon marked for destruction) or for deep solemnity (e.g., Requiems).

The D-minor concerto, for which Beethoven later wrote his own cadenzas, is special indeed. The brooding intensity of its opening is enhanced by throbbing syncopated figures and violent outbursts that shatter the surface quiet. Not the least of the surprises is the calm simplicity of the opening piano statement (2'13"):

Mozart: Piano Concerto #20 In D Minor, K 466 - 1. Allegro

This unexpected turn toward the reflective can trip up a pianist, and why wouldn’t it? How do you follow an orchestral introduction like that? One is tempted to inflate that first piano statement, to confer power via some trick of articulation or dynamics. I must confess I never fully understood the challenge of this entrance nor began to grasp the variety of ways it might be worked imto the argument of the whole movement until I heard the classic (there’s that word again!) 1970 Clifford Curzon recording, with Benjamin Britten leading the English Chamber Orchestra. Here is that passage from Curzon and company:

Mozart: Piano Concerto #20 In D Minor, K 466 - 1. Allegro

And for comparison’s sake, here is a third reading, from Mitsuko Uchida, playing and leading the Camerata Salzburg:

I am sure you felt the extra heat in Uchida’s initial piano statement. I love it, and it’s certainly of a piece with everything leading up to it. But does it allow the full range of emotional expression implicit in this remarkable music? To what degree should the performer suggest a turbulent subtext? Maybe Curzon’s relatively more pacific interpretation is at least as valid if not more so.

The slow movement is well-known from the 1984 motion picture Amadeus:

Mozart: Piano Concerto #20 In D Minor, K 466 - 2. Romance

And so on to the final two concertos. Mozart’s popularity in Vienna waned as suddenly as it had waxed. From January 1787 to December 1791 he wrote only those two, of which one was meant for performance in Frankfurt. The other, K. 595 in B-flat Major, is the more interesting. I am not sure I mean that in a good way. Listen to the first movement, initial exposition:

Mozart: Piano Concerto #27 In B Flat, K 595 - 1. Allegro

In mid-1790 Mozart experienced a bout of poor health, perhaps the first harbinger of the illness that would claim him late the following year. He had also become increasingly tired of the constant travel, financial negotiations, and Viennese musical politics that claimed most of his working hours. From Frankfurt he wrote in an uncharacteristically dispirited letter to his wife:

If people could see into my heart, I should almost feel ashamed. To me everything is cold—cold as ice. Perhaps if you were with me. . . . But, as it is, everything seems so empty.

And, a few months later, another letter ostensibly addresses their separation but hints at a deeper sense of abandonment:

I can’t explain to you how I feel, there’s a kind of emptiness—it just hurts me—a kind of longing that is never stilled, therefore never stops—it just goes on and on—no, it grows from day to day.

(Anderson, Letters of Mozart, 3/e, 1985)

Freiburgers   FischerIt is not sentimental rationalizing that allows us to hear this as music written in fits and starts, pushed out with no real passion and with palpable emotional difficulty, from someone going through deep depression. In terms of craft, nothing is lacking. In terms of spirit, everything. Many of Mozart’s masterpieces are put together like this: snippets of contrasting or complementary music jostle one another so as to provide a sense of life, a witty exchange, an attractive series of little events caught in a comfortably unpredictable flow. But here the melancholy persistently intrudes until it seems pervasive, undeniable, inescapable. Mozart, very near the end.

In terms of recordings, there are too many good readings of individual works to name here. I like the complete set that Uchida, Jeffrey Tate, and the ECO did several years ago. For early-instrument fans, there’s John Eliot Gardiner’s collection with fortepianist Malcolm Bilson and the English Baroque Soloists, now available at budget prices. If you like Edwin Fischer, Sviatoslav Richter, Robert Casadesus, Alfred Brendel, Martha Argerich, or almost any other great 20th-century pianist, you should seek out their Mozart recordings too. Among younger artists now tackling these works, watch for one of Bilson’s students, Kristian Bezuidenhout. His recording of K. 453 with the Freiburg Barockorchester (Harmonia Mundi 902082) is a keeper! I hope more will follow. Here he is in live performance with the Freiburgers:

Et cetera: Electronic music has been with us for at least seventy years now. There’s a long road winding from the early work of pioneers like Halim El-Dabh and Pierre Schaeffer in the 1940s to the technologies—and cultural changes—that allow the works of Steve Reich and Deadmau5 to rub friendly elbows in music lovers’ collections today.

A new collection, Toward the Curve (Oberlin Music OC 15-02; Blu-ray Pure Audio & CD; downloads available), forcefully reminded me of this great heritage. It showcases the work of eight young composers who create vividly exciting music by drawing upon the well-established techniques, styles, and vocabulary of their elders. I am not suggesting that their music is derivative, any more than whatever Haydn “copied” from Stamitz and the Bach sons. What I am saying is that we now have a language in which new stories can and will be told for some time to come. As Schoenberg told his composition students at UCLA, there is still plenty of good music to be written in C major. But for “in C major,” just substitute “with synthesizers, digital filters, etc. etc.”!

Toward the CurveToward the Curve is organized around the improvisational skills and collaborative bent of pianist Thomas Rosencranz, like the other composers a product of Oberlin’s progressive music wing and especially its Technology in Music and Related Arts (TIMARA) program. So here we have “piano plus,” e.g., piano plus indeterminately ordered audio clips, piano plus electronics, prepared piano plus “fixed media,” and so forth. I wish I could play something from every track for you. There are especially attractive selections by Peter V. Swendsen, Peter Flint, Aurie Hsu, and Tom Lopez. Here’s a bit of Flint’s ElectroSonata: Spontaneous Combustion, the electronics of which are built on accordion samples:

ElectroSonata: Spontaneous Combustion

Boo-hiss to the packagers of the discs, though. The program booklet is coordinated to the CD only, which makes it difficult to identify the tracks on the Blu-ray disc (the CD leaves out some of Rosencranz’s “Interludes”). This could easily have been fixed, but the problem seems to stem from a most un-TIMARA-esque mindset: rather than the CD, the Blu-ray should have been considered the primary sound source, not least because a number of these works were engineered for multichannel playback.

Heard any good Polish folk music lately? I have, thanks to a double album entitled Folk Love (Miłość na ludowo, NFM 27 / ACD 213-2). It features Poland’s National Forum of Music Choir directed by Agnieszka Franków-Żelazny. The ostensible reason for this handsomely produced new release is to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Oskar Kolberg, who devoted his life to the study and preservation of Poland’s folk culture. Music from every region of the country is presented here in unaccompanied choral settings from leading Polish composers. You will have heard of one or two—Henryk Górecki is among them—but all are worth a listen. The singing is clean, hearty, and soulful, the folk poetry earthy and touching. It’s all well recorded. Here is a sample, Bolesław Wallek-Walewski’s Suite of Highlander Songs from Podhale:

Hey! When from the mountain top I’ll sing with glee
The girls from Zakopane will hear me.
Love me! If not, let us part
Don’t look at me sideways
for it breaks my heart.


© 2022 PS Audio, Inc.

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