Mozart’s Last Piano Concerto

250px-Croce-Mozart-DetailLast week we stepped into the strange, mysterious world of Beethoven’s Late string quartets, music which stylistically leaves behind everything that came before and offers up profound and timeless revelations.

In its own way, Mozart’s last piano concerto (No. 27 in B flat major, KV 595) makes a similar, if more subtle departure. It still sounds like the Mozart we know, but listen carefully and you may notice something different about this music…perhaps an occasional hint of wistful sadness and even wrenching pain.

Concerto No. 27 was first performed in early 1791, the year of Mozart’s death, at a concert that may have marked Mozart’s final public appearance on the concert stage. By this time, Mozart’s performing career was already winding down. His wife, Constanze was ill and he was deeply in debt. He was treated with contempt by the new Emperor, Leopold II. The publisher, Hoffmeister, refused to continue to publish Mozart’s music unless the composer turned out simpler and more popular works, to which Mozart replied, “Then I can make no more by my pen, and I had better starve, and go to destruction at once.” But the sizable amount of music Mozart wrote in 1791 (which included a piece for glass harmonica, a string quartet, the Clarinet ConcertoThe Magic Flute, and the Requiem) transcended all of this.

Concerto No. 27 opens with a wordless conversation between two contrasting opera characters. The strings make a quietly passionate opening statement amid playfully comic interjections by the winds. At the 0:37 mark, the final movement of the “Jupiter” Symphony (completed three years earlier in 1788) briefly surfaces. (Listen here for a comparison). Similar to Jupiter, Mozart’s final concerto is filled with counterpoint (multiple musical lines happening at the same time). As you listen, notice all of the musical voices surrounding the piano line: the way they weave together, move apart, and converse. From the violins to the flute, oboe, and bassoon, each voice has a distinct persona and something to say. You can hear this in the passage beginning around 4:00, with the entrance of the flute. Or listen a few moments later when the piano and strings fade into a solitary woodwind line. Notice the way the line grows and changes shape, as the oboe, flute, and piano trade places.

Entering the first movement’s development section, we’re suddenly confronted with one of those hints of sadness I mentioned earlier. This once assured music gradually begins to falter and fade into silent pauses. When the piano enters, we’re in a new and different world. And do you remember those playful woodwind interjections from the movement’s opening? Now they are transformed into a shockingly stern interruption in the wrong key. A moment later, the piano picks up the “interruption” motive and the oboe takes the singing piano melody. Listen for all of this here and then notice the way we return safely home at the recapitulation.

The second movement is a quietly introspective aria. Amid the simple perfection of the opening melody, perhaps a lonely, solemn march, there’s a sense of lingering sadness. Again, notice the way the voices interact: the three distinct voices in the strings, joined by the singing woodwind line in this passage, the oboe joining the bassoon in a single, sustained pitch here, the winds interjecting with a repeated chord a few moments into this excerpt.

The opening melody’s final statement occurs as a shadowy whisper, the piano, flute and violins sharing the melody and creating an almost ghostly sonority. In the final moments of the second movement, there’s a sense that the music doesn’t want to let go as it shifts to a series of deceptive cadences to avoid an ultimate resolution. In the final bars, seven distinct contrapuntal voices can be heard.

The frolicking final movement dances with playful, comic interruptions. The cadenzas in the first and final movements (often improvised by the performer) were written by Mozart. At the end of this final cadenza, the solo piano pauses for a moment of brief introspection. In the final bars, the main motive is tossed around the orchestra as the piano erupts in joyful, bubbling arpeggios.

Nine days after completing Concerto No. 27, Mozart incorporated the final movement’s theme into the song, Sehnsucht nach den Frühlinge:

Come, sweet May, and turn
The trees green again,
And make the little violets
Bloom for me by the brook!

Now that we’ve touched on a few details, let’s listen to the entire piece without interruption. Here is an exceptional performance with Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, conducted by Trevor Pinnock:

  • Find Maria João Pires’ recording of Mozart’s Concerto No. 27 with Claudio Abbado and Orchestra Mozart at iTunes, Amazon.

Symphonic Snapshot: Mahler’s Second

Gustav Mahler in New York City, 1910
Gustav Mahler in New York City, 1910

In 2011, Music Director Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic marked the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks with a free “Concert for New York” at Avery Fisher Hall. The program featured Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection,” a piece which opens with an anguished funeral march and culminates in a moment of ultimate transfiguration. In the final bars of the fifth movement, the traditional orchestra is suddenly augmented by the all-encompassing power of a pipe organ and a final proclamation rises up from the chorus:

Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God will it lead you! 

Mahler’s deeply psychological music was ahead of its time. Largely misunderstood by audiences during the composer’s lifetime, it wasn’t until the mid to late twentieth century that the music began to resonate fully with audiences. Now we collectively turn to this music in times of grief and confusion. “If a composer could say what he had to say in words, he would not bother trying to say it in music,” said Mahler. Transcending literal meaning, Mahler’s music communicates ultimate and eternal truth.

Coincidentally, the New York Philharmonic’s performance came within months of the hundredth anniversary of Mahler’s death in 1911. In many ways, Mahler’s music is infused in the orchestra’s DNA. In the final years of his life, Mahler served as the New York Philharmonic’s music director (between 1909 and 1911). His exhausting battles with the Philharmonic’s (at that time) small-minded and provincial leadership have been well-documented. Later, as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein passionately championed Mahler’s works.

We’ll return to Mahler’s Second Symphony in greater detail in a future post. For now, here are a few musical snapshots from the Philharmonic’s 2011 concert. The first movement, Allegro maestoso, opens with a ferocious snarl which immediately demands our attention. The strings make an opening statement and then the woodwinds enter with the next layer of this long musical narrative. We hear the searing, mocking sounds of muted trumpets and horns. The Dies Irae (the Latin chant representing the “Day of Wrath”) surfaces briefly. The movement climaxes with a shockingly dissonant fortissimo (14:46), which anticipates the sounds of the twentieth century. There are also moments of otherworldly beauty and repose. But we keep getting pulled back to the funeral procession with a musical voice which says, “Don’t forget me! I’m still here!” There’s something slightly unsettling about the sudden and unpredictable way the music alternates in mood in this big, unfolding cosmic battle.

At one point in this performance the audience, which seems sincerely engaged in the music, begins applauding, apparently mistaking a powerful climax for the movement’s end. Seasoned concertgoers might frown on applause between movements, especially during the long, dramatic arc of a Mahler symphony. But this applause also seems to suggest that there were audience members in the hall who were hearing this piece for the first time, making the New York Philharmonic’s gift to their community even more special.

The Second Symphony’s fourth movement, Urlicht (“Primal Light”) originated in Mahler’s song cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”). It moves into the remote key of D-flat major, far from the Symphony’s principal keys of C minor and E-flat major:

This excerpt from the final movement begins with a solemn statement of the Dies Irae in the trombones and unfolds into a triumphant moment of exultation. Mahler’s score occasionally asks wind players to raise their instrument’s bell above the music stand to increase the volume and direct intensity of the sound. In this clip you’ll see the horns raise their bells:

  • Find the complete “Concert for New York” on iTunes, Amazon
  • Hear Claudio Abbado’s 2003 performance with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra

Music Inspired by Scotland

Unknown-2Tomorrow all eyes will be on Scotland. A referendum will determine whether the ancient and mysterious land of rugged mountains, long, picturesque Lochs and remote castles will remain a part of the United Kingdom or become an independent country. Throughout its tumultuous history (which included the arrival of the Romans around 71 AD, and later, Catholic-Protestant religious wars in which the Scots sometimes fought alongside the French), Scotland has maintained a separate identity. The Treaty of Union brought Scotland into the United Kingdom in 1706. Today, independence could have significant and possibly devastating implications for Scotland’s orchestras.

The landscapes and legends of Scotland have served as an inspiration for many composers. Here is a sample:

Mendelssohn Travels to Scotland

Felix Mendelssohn toured Scotland in 1829 when he was twenty years old. During a stormy voyage to the Hebrides Islands, he visited Fingal’s Cave, a miraculous sea cavern on the desolate, rocky coast of the uninhabited island of Staffa. Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave), Op. 26 was finished a year later on December 16, the one day of the year that the cave is fully illuminated by sunlight.

Mendelssohn’s letters suggest that he was deeply affected by his experience at Fingal’s Cave. It was here that the opening motive of the overture came into his mind.

Listen to the way the music evokes an atmosphere of mystery, even suggesting the supernatural. You can almost feel the motion of the waves in the opening, but also listen to the long, sustained tones which emerge in the brass and woodwinds (0:21). At 3:52 we hear a “surround sound” effect as the distinct voices of a variety of instruments add their statements. Mendelssohn’s music covers wide emotional territory, but at the end we’re left with the same sense of wonder and mystery we felt in the opening.

This recording features Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra:

Mendelssohn’s visit to the the ruined abby at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh inspired the opening seed for the “Scottish” Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56. He wrote:

In the evening twilight we went today to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved; a little room is shown there with a winding staircase leading up to the door… The chapel close to it is now roofless, grass and ivy grow there, and at that broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything round is broken and mouldering and the bright sky shines in. I believe I today found in that old chapel the beginning of my ‘Scottish’ Symphony.

You might hear a faint echo of Scottish folk music in the theme of the second movement. Beyond that, the symphony qualifies as “pure music,” with no overt references to Scotland. The movements flow into one another with little break, creating a sense of continuity. For me, one of the most interesting aspects of this piece is the surprising way it ends. The majestic, joyous theme of the coda seems to leave behind everything which has come before

This is Herbert Blomstedt and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in concert in 2008:

  1.  Introduction. Andante con moto – Allegro un poco agitato – Assai animato – Andante come I (0:00)
  2. Scherzo. Vivace non troppo (15:06)
  3. Adagio cantabile (19:21)
  4. Finale guerriero. Allegro vivacissimo – Allegro maestoso assai (27:59)

Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy

Completed in 1880 and dedicated to Pablo de Sarasate, Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 46 offers another German view of Scotland. The four movements are based on Scottish folk songs“Auld Rob Morris”, “The Dusty Miller”, I’m A’ Doun for Lack O’ Johnnie” and “Hey Tuttie Tatie.” Fragments of “Auld Rob Morris” return throughout the piece. Listen for its quiet final statement at the end. 

Here is Jascha Heifetz’s legendary recording with Sir Malcolm Sargent and the New Symphony of London:

  1. Introduction; Grave, Adagio cantabile (0:00)
  2. Scherzo; Allegro (7:44)
  3. Andante sostenuto (12:14)
  4. Finale; Allegro guerriero (18:54)

An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise

The Orkney Islands are at the northernmost tip of Scotland. In 1985 English composer Peter Maxwell Davies wrote An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise, a piece which captures the raucous atmosphere of a traditional wedding celebration on the islands. Listen for the entrance of a bagpiper at the end.

Here is the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Peter Maxwell Davies:

Sunrise in the Orkney Islands
Sunrise in the Orkney Islands

Remembering Claudio Abbado

Claudio AbbadoRenowned Italian conductor Claudio Abbado passed away yesterday at the age of 80. You can read about his life here.

The greatest conductors know exactly what they want the music to sound like. Through unwavering conviction, they inspire the musicians of the orchestra to share their vision. Great conductors don’t practice in front of a mirror to put on a show. Every gesture embodies the essence of the piece in an honest way. All of this is on display in this clip of Abbado rehearsing the Berlin Philharmonic:

Here is Abbado conducting Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. The orchestra is the Lucerne Festival Orchestra:

  1. 0:55 – Traeurmarsch. In gemessenem Schritt. Streng. Wie ein
  2. 13:36 – Stürmisch bewegt. Mit grösster Vehemenz
  3. 28:20 – Scherzo. Kräftig, Nicht zu schnell
  4. 45:17 – Adagietto. Sehr langsam.
  5. 53:49 – Rondo-Finale. Allegro-Allegro giocoso. Frisch.

[quote]Culture is a shared primary and, like water: theaters, libraries, museums, movie theaters are as many aqueducts.-Claudio Abbado[/quote]