One of the downsides of being myopically focussed on a single composer – Mahler in my case – is that a lot of stuff can pass you by and not impinge on your musical consciousness. From time to time I glance up and my ears are drawn to an area of the vast panoply of music that is virgin territory to me. Some readers may recall that a couple of years ago I reported in a Musical Notes column that I had been drawn to the Beethoven String Quartets. Now a new area has opened up: the early Piano Concertos of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
The later concertos were familiar enough, but the early ones had been totally ignored, until now. The popularity of certain sections of the later concertos – for example the slow second movement of No.21 in C major K467 since its use in the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan – means that they rather than the earlier ones have been heard more frequently in radio broadcast and in concert. This probably accounts for why they have remained a hidden secret for so long.
So what prompted this new discovery? While browsing a well-known internet music retailer1, I came across a bargain boxed set of the complete Mozart piano concertos, so an order was swiftly placed and is now being listened to. This 'complete' set is complete as far as it needs to be. A cursory glance at a list of the piano concertos will indicate that Mozart appears to have written 27 of the them. However numbers one to four are arrangements by Mozart of other composers' work, number seven was written as a concerto for three keyboards, and number 10 for two keyboards. All the others are bona fide concerti for the piano, albeit in Mozart's own time they would have been played on the fortepiano.
Identifying works by Mozart (and many other composers) can be a minefield. A reference to his symphony in G minor probably means the very well-known and loved Symphony No.40 written in 1788, but Mozart also wrote an earlier symphony in the same key which dates from 1773; the latter work is numbered 25. This potential minefield was substantially cleared when in 1862 along came a saviour in the form of Ludwig von Köchel with his Catalogue of the Complete Musical Works of W A Mozart. This listed all of Mozart's works then known in chronological order of composition and grouped them thematically: the symphonies, the string quartets, the piano trios and so on. Although later research has uncovered errors, including some false attributions, the catalogue in its revised form - the sixth edition was published in 1964 - is still the main method of identifying Mozart's works in use today. Works are referenced by their K-numbers (K for Köchel). Thus Mozart's Symphony 40 is known as K550, whereas the earlier G minor symphony is K183.
So what about these early concertos, written in Salzburg? As mentioned previously, the first four are only arrangements of other composers' work, so No.5 in D major K175 is Mozart's first full essay in the medium, and what an astonishing essay it is, giving proof, if proof were needed, just what a musical genius the young Mozart was, not merely a child with prodigious keyboard skills and a pushy father. But look at that K-number: 175, not exactly an early composition, despite being written in 1773 when Mozart was still only 17 years old. The skill displayed in the contrapuntal writing in the third movement Allegro is of a high standard.
Nos.6 and 8 (K238 and K246 respectively) are very pleasant works in their own right. That 'pleasant' is not a denigration, but by Mozart's standard they are workshop pieces, especially when compared with the next concerto, No.9 in E flat major K271 of 1777. For years this has been known as the Jeunehomme concerto, although the identity of the French lady pianist for whom it was written remained a mystery. Whoever she was, she must have been a considerable talent and not just a gifted society lady, for the solo part requires a virtuoso technique. The most recent research suggests that she may have been Louise Victoire Jenamy, wife of a wealthy merchant Joseph Jenamy, and the daughter of Jean-Georges Noverre, a dancer and choreographer and a friend of Mozart. If so, it may have been she who commissioned the work. Regardless of who it was written for, it is a milestone in the development of the piano concerto. Prior to K271, the normal practice was for the tutti (the orchestra) to introduce the main theme or themes before the solo (the piano) enters in reply to the tutti. Mozart tears up the rulebook and has the piano enter at the second bar, as an equal partner if not the driving force – the first movement has two cadenzas - a position it maintains throughout the concerto.
The next concerto of significance is No.12 in A major K414, one of a group of three written in 1782 after Mozart had moved to Vienna and was courting his future wife Constanza Weber. This has a beautiful first subject for its first movement, an introspective slow movement and a fine Rondo finale.
These early concerti are a joy to listen to and I heartily recommend them, particularly numbers 5, 9 and 12.
Till next time, happy listening.