So said the famous Czech composer Antonín Dvořák of Austria’s most famous musical son.
Despite a life that was often impoverished and bore a great many hardships, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was said to have possessed a particularly mischievous and childlike sense of humour. Exalted from an early age (and driven in part by his ambitious and overbearing father) as a musical genius and child prodigy, the sheer output of his tragically short life – he was just 35 when he died – has if nothing else, bestowed upon humanity a truly delightful canon of music for all generations since and yet to come, to enjoy and find pleasure in.
For those who are unfamiliar with the master’s piano concerti, I would suggest his 23rd as a good starting point. The recording I have chosen sees Mikhail Pletnev at the keyboard with the Deutsche Kammerphilarmonie of Bremen providing the orchestral accompaniment under the direction of Christian Tetzlaff.
The work opens with a softly spoken, almost apologetic melody – it’s the musical equivalent of “let bygones be bygones.” The theme is developed briefly until a 2nd theme presents itself at 0.54. This melody, which plays against a series of descending chords, is key to the movement and will reappear in many different guises. A mini resolution is first proposed at 1.27; a moment of doubt attempts to slow the graceful cadence, but it soon reappears in an exquisitely simple A major cadence (1.58.)
At 2.00 the piano enters, repeating the opening theme. The meter of the music, the orchestration, the direction and easy flowing nature is all typically Mozartian. The theme is expounded with gently probing virtuosity. After the orchestra escorts the music along for a few bars, the piano returns to being a solo voice at 2.56 with a repeat of the 2nd theme.
Interplay between soloist and orchestra continues briskly, leading to a momentary pause (4.15) at which juncture the strings gently attempt to sweep up lingering concerns and gradually point the way back toward assuredness. In this exploratory phase however, there are elements of doubt creeping in, heralded by the cry of a clarinet at 4.39 and a brief sojourn into pianistic figurations which are echoed by the orchestra.
This passage leads to those heavy clouds gingerly rolling away, leading directly back to that opening theme (5.54.) The music initially follows a familiar path, before an abrupt change which starts to brew at 8.10, arpeggio scales alternating with scampering ones against a shifting backdrop of orchestral colours. It sounds like we have moved back affirmatively toward the home key of A major, but we are aggressively yanked away from that path at 8.47 when the orchestra assertively pull back the stage curtain for the soloist to expatiate on the themes which have gone forth thus far.
An unexpectedly dissonant chord at 9.07 signifies Mozart’s inventive nature. The pianist carefully searches in the dark for a hitherto hidden, illuminated path. Sustained trills do indeed lead us back to that picture of golden sunshine that only Mozart can produce (10.18.) It’s gorgeous, clean, pure and resolutely happy music. Then, in keeping with the sensibilities of the age, the movement does not end with an angry, triumphant bang a la Beethoven, it merely fades away softly like a butterfly. Exquisite stuff, indeed.
In a marked departure from the atmosphere of innocent joy which closed the opening movement, the 2nd movement by contrast opens with a furrowed brow and a troublesome conscience. F# minor being the relative minor of A major seems an obvious enough choice, but the sound world and mood is completely different. In fact, this was to be the only movement written by Mozart in this particular key.
The music feels somewhat operatic in tone; this may not be entirely accidental as Don Giovanni followed a year later (in 1787.) The soloist finishes their presentation of the opening theme at 0.47 and the orchestra enter, developing the idea further with ominous harmonies.
The skies have clouded over and everything has become deeply lachrymose. That is until a somewhat brighter section in A major appears at 2.16, announced by flute and clarinet. This momentary diversion cannot last however, and we are plunged back into the despairing F# minor theme at 3.19.
At 5.09, there is a growing sense that the sorrowful music is running out of steam – pizzicato (plucked) strings provide the accompaniment in the background but cannot sustain themselves for long and the movement dissolves quicker than expected into thin air.
The final movement is an upbeat and exuberant rondo, once again in the home key of A major. With Mozart, the gloom never sticks around for long and it feels good to be back in the mode or brio and energy. Even the bassoons are given cause to stretch their figurative legs (0.24,) the woodwinds later returning the compliment (0.39) in chirpy, birdsong-like passages.
The passagework in the piano glitters and sparkles with vitality throughout and the orchestra at times serve as a call-and-response partner. There’s a lovely, teasing slow down at 2.43 almost indeterminable so as to be unnoticeable, but subtle enough to make a difference to the performance.
After the cheerful opening theme is recounted, there is a change of direction into rapidly shifting keys, after which point the pianist calls a brief halt with a dramatic re-entry (3.10.) This is repeated almost verbatim at 3.23 before the music embarks on a journey into exploring further musical keys.
The soloist continues to explore every avenue whilst sustaining the non-stop energy and vivacity which the score calls for. After some extensive searching, the music wends its way back to the opening theme (6.06) and the full orchestra give a tutti statement by means of reinforcement.
Before closing out the concerto, Mozart temporarily holds back with a brief, but final contemplative section (6.38) – the conclusion appears before long, however and a truly delightful and sparkling work of art comes to a soft, understated close.
If this is your first Mozart Piano Concerto, welcome to the canon 😊