Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor, K.466
Wolfgang Amadè Mozart
Born: 27 January, 1756 in Salzburg, Austria
Died: 5 December, 1791 in Vienna, Austria
Brooding and chromatic, the D Minor Piano Concerto is a far cry from conventional Mozart. Listen for stormy outbursts, even in the slow movement. Mozart provided his Viennese audience with a sunny conclusion – but not until the coda of the finale!
The piano concerto occupied Mozart throughout his brief, productive career. He composed twenty-seven, of which only two are in minor keys. That statistic alone would alert us that there is something different about the two concerti in minor mode, K.466 in D minor and K.491 in C minor. The D minor work was composed first, and was completely unlike any concerto (or symphony, for that matter) that Mozart had written before. That the work still communicates its electricity and drama to us for all its familiarity is one measure of its genius.
Between 1782 and 1786 Mozart wrote fifteen piano concerti. Obviously this was an immensely fertile period for him; it coincided with his greatest financial and social success among the Viennese aristocracy. Most of the concerti were written for his own use, that is, Mozart performed them himself, conducting from the keyboard. The piano concerti from these years are of the highest possible quality. Mozart had reached the creative peak of full maturity, and his keyboard technique was formidable. The D minor concerto is one of three that date from 1785. The autograph score is dated 11 February 1785, and we know that Mozart played the piece on a Lenten season subscription concert that month.
A surprise for Vienna’s conservative audience
One wonders what his Viennese audience must have thought of this explosive, agitated, restless music. Certainly the piano part was exceptionally difficult, more so than any of its predecessors. But that first audience would not likely have noticed the demanding keyboard runs. More likely they were taken aback by the ominous, stormy character of the music and the peculiar relationship between the orchestra and the soloist.
This concerto breaks in many ways from everything Mozart had written previously. For starters, there is no singable melody at the outset. The orchestral exposition is built on syncopations (rhythmic uncertainty) and moves rapidly to passages of chromatic tension (harmonic uncertainty). When the soloist enters, it is with an entirely new theme that has not yet been stated by the orchestra. That entrance establishes a pattern for this concerto that is different from its predecessors: the pianist has a great deal of musical material to itself, not shared by the orchestra. That is not to say the orchestra is slighted. To the contrary, Mozart’s orchestral writing in the concerto is thoroughly symphonic, requiring a level of orchestral virtuosity as demanding as any of the late symphonies. His genius lies in the way he has integrated the soloist with the orchestra, sustaining the nervous energy level for maximum emotional impact.
The D minor concerto was Mozart’s best known instrumental work in the nineteenth century, and is usually heralded as Mozart’s prescient realization of the romantic movement in music. The work held particular appeal for Beethoven, who wrote a cadenza for the first movement that has virtually eclipsed all others; no Mozart cadenza survives for this concerto. Mr. Fray plays the cadenza by the Viennese pianist and composer Friedrich Gulda (1930-2000), with some of his own interpolations.
The slow movement is a large A-B-A structure whose outer sections are an operatic cantilena of sorts for the piano. A raging G minor middle section jolts the equilibrium of the otherwise tranquil Romanze, reminding us that the darkness of the first movement has not been eradicated.
Mozart’s finale returns to D minor with energy and passion. This Allegro assai is more concerto-like and less symphonic than the first movement, opening with a ‘Mannheim rocket’ [a sharply ascending arpeggio figure] from the soloist that establishes an electric energy level. A measured march-like theme eventually supersedes the rocket. Possibly as a concession to his conservative Viennese audience, Mozart closes with a transformation of the march theme in D major, ending the concerto with a brilliant flourish.
The concerto is scored for flute, two oboes, bassoon, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, solo piano and strings.
Symphony No. 1 in C, Op. 21
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born: 16 December, 1770 in Bonn, Germany
Died: 26 March, 1827 in Vienna, Austria
Beethoven’s First Symphony was built on the symphonic tradition he had inherited from Mozart and Haydn, but still shows daring signs of originality. The opening chords of his slow introduction ask a question: what key we are in? Soon enough he establishes sunny C major and a lively Allegro. Woodwinds brighten the color palette. The brisk Minuet races along at the pace of a lively scherzo. And the finale is a joyous romp, revealing Beethoven’s marvelous sense of humor.
Beethoven’s first symphony was completed and premiered on 2 April, 1800, on a program that also included the Septet, Op. 20, and (or it seems likely) the Viennese premiere of his First Piano Concerto. The young German had initially established his reputation as a pianist in the 1790s. This concert was a turning point in his career, decisively shifting his image in Vienna to composer. Indeed, Beethoven found himself in the enviable position of being the most prominent composer in Vienna after Haydn — and Haydn, at the age of 68, was an exceedingly old man by he standard of the day.
It is apparent from Beethoven’s sketches that he had worked on this first symphony for several years beforehand. No doubt he recognized that his work would be compared to the symphonies of his famous contemporaries, many of whom who had followings in the Austrian capital. The eminent British musicologist Donald Francis Tovey called this work “a fitting farewell to the eighteenth century,” and Beethoven certainly drew upon the lessons he had learned from the symphonies of Mozart, Haydn and others.
To a listener who knows the Eroica, Pastorale, and Choral symphonies, Beethoven’s First sounds traditional, almost conservative. In fact, it was regarded as innovative, even daring, when it was first performed. Both the first and last movements have slow introductions that sound as if they are in another key in their opening measures. Especially for the opening of a symphony, this was adventurous indeed. Another startling innovation was Beethoven’s use of timpani in the slow movement. Contemporaries also noted the extensive use of woodwinds throughout the symphony.
The third movement, though entitled Menuetto, races along with the sparkle and momentum of a scherzo. It is the minuet of the Haydn symphonies in name only. Papa Haydn’s influence is even more discernible in the country dance finale. The first violins tease us with a tentative ascending scale, inching up one step further each time it is reiterated. Finally the full octave is achieved, and the slow tempo abandoned in favor of a high-spirited frolic. Audiences in Beethoven’s time were moved to laughter by this sly musical joke. It is easy to understand why the First Symphony was among the most popular of Beethoven’s works during the composer’s lifetime.
Beethoven scored his First Symphony similarly to the late symphonies of Mozart and Haydn, with the addition of clarinets. He called for woodwinds, horns and trumpets in pairs; timpani and strings.
Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2021