Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 12 & 13

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Program Notes:

This pair of attractive and highly crafted piano concertos from 1782 are among the first such works Mozart composed after moving from Salzburg to Vienna in order to pursue his career as an independent artist. The woodwind parts are not structurally essential in these concertos, and Mozart himself authorized performances of the pieces a quattro, by a pianist with string quartet accompaniment, as in the present recording. What is thereby lost in sheer volume of sound can be gained through nuance, and these pieces are very effectively conveyed in the more intimate context of chamber music.

Particularly memorable is the Andante of K. 414, with its sublime, hymn-like main theme, which seems to quote Johann Christian Bach’s overture for the revival of Baldassare Galuppi’s opera La calamità dei cuori (The calamity of love). J.C. Bach had already befriended the Mozart family during their time in London in 1764, when Wolfgang was eight years old; several years later, around 1770, the young Mozart made transcriptions of three of J.C. Bach’s keyboard sonatas, turning these works into the concertos K. 107. In addition to devising orchestral ritornellos in these arrangements, Mozart sometimes adds and deletes from his models and approximates, in these early works, the general proportions of his later concerto form. The cradle of Mozart’s concerto composition thus lay in his transformation of the sonata, a genre associated with private-home performance, into the more public-display genre of the concerto, in which he himself assumed the role of virtuoso. In this context, we can surmise that Mozart’s allusion to J.C. Bach in K. 414 represents a meaningful homage to the older master, who had died shortly before, in January 1782.

The first two movements of K. 414 are thematically related, and the continuation of the orchestral ritornello of the Andante beginning at measure 9 recalls the beginning of the main theme of the first movement of K. 414, with its rise by thirds through the A major tonic triad followed by a stepwise descent. Various themes in this delightful concerto employ such scalar descending figures. Already in the second phrase of the first movement, for instance, Mozart enlarges the scalar descent through an octave from measure 2 as a rhythmically broadened, syncopated descent in measures 5-8, an idea that forms the gestural climax of the opening theme. The prominence in the development of this Allegro of the key of F-sharp minor foreshadows Mozart’s later Concerto in this key, K. 488. In the charming Allegretto finale, the stepwise descending motion characteristic of the earlier movements is balanced by a rising melodic impetus.

The Concerto in C Major, K. 415, also displays such motivic interconnections between its movements. The sweeping conjunct motion beginning on C in the opening march-like Allegro reappears transformed in the gliding lyrical contour of the Andante in F major, a movement that conveys a strikingly operatic character. The opening melody of this Andante is shaped around C, the dominant, and unfolds as a series of increasingly passionate descending gestures to this note from D, from F, and from A. Then comes the melodic crux: a soaring upward leap through a tenth to the highest note, B-flat, a gesture then balanced by a long lyrical descent, leading to the end of the theme. This opening melody is beautifully shaped, and the movement displays other subtle features, such as the chains of trills that appear before the reprise and in the coda.

A rejected sketch for this slow movement shows that Mozart contemplated using a very different theme in C minor, whose descending contour closely parallels the main subject of the jovial finale, in C major and 6/8 time. While discarding this idea for the slow movement, he introduced a pair of pathos-laden Adagio episodes into the Allegro finale, in mm. 49-64 and 216-231. A return of the 6/8 tune dispels the melancholy C-minor music, but the work ends gently, with a decrescendo to pianissimo in the final moments. K. 415 was first performed at Mozart’s academy concert on March 23, 1783, together with the “Haffner” Symphony, K. 385, in the presence of Austrian Emperor Joseph II.

In a letter to his father in Salzburg, Mozart described these concertos from 1782 as “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.” Mozart’s “happy medium” thus seeks to avoid empty virtuosity as well as mere complexity; in his view, intricate passages “cannot fail to please” the “less learned.” His regard for the overall impact of his music on relatively untutored listeners was an enduring concern. This ingratiating music is at once refined and transparent, innovative yet accessible.

© William Kinderman
William Kinderman is the author of many books on music, including Mozart’s Piano Music, Beethoven, and Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’, all published by Oxford University Press.