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.

Ivan Moravec Plays Chopin

Czech pianist Ivan Moravec (1930-2015)
Czech pianist Ivan Moravec (1930-2015)

 

The legendary Czech pianist Ivan Moravec passed away on Monday at the age of 84. He was widely regarded as one of the finest interpreters of the music of Chopin. Mozart and Debussy were also high points of his repertoire. Born in Prague, and initially limited by the constraints of the Iron Curtain, Moravec first became known in the West through his recordings.

Listening to Moravec’s extensive discography, it’s easy to get a sense of the stunning, expressive beauty of his sound. His musicianship transcended flashy showmanship, transporting listeners to a deeper and more primal dimension. In a 1980 New York Times review, Harold C. Schonberg described Moravec’s playing this way:

Using an exceptionally warm sound, he played with a perpetually singing line. There was an architecture to the playing. This was an absorbing recital, played by a pianist who is very much his own man, with a degree of intensity, poetry and tonal subtlety very rare in these days of machine gun piano playing.

Here is Ivan Moravec’s recording of Chopin’s haunting Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52:

Now let’s hear two excerpts from Chopin’s Op. 25 Études. Robert Schumann referred to the Étude No. 1 in A-Flat Major as the “Aeolian Harp,” describing it as “a poem rather than a study.” It’s impossible to sustain a note on the piano. Once the hammer strikes the string, the sound begins to decay. But somehow the colorful splashes of sound in the arpeggiated accompaniment in this piece almost seems to defy this reality:

Étude No. 7 in C-Sharp Minor takes us into dark, melancholy territory. At the same time, it’s filled with moments of restless transcendence…tremendous drama packed into a small space where every note and chord counts. The main melodic line lies in a deep, sombre register of the piano, suggesting the cello.

The music is harmonically adventurous, with surprises around every corner. It must have sounded even more shocking to audiences in 1834 when it was written. There are hints of the late nineteenth century chromaticism of Richard Wagner.

Additional Listening

The Joy of Wrong Notes

broken-piano-keysThe element of surprise is an important ingredient in every great melody. Each note of a melody sets up expectations which are either fulfilled or delightfully challenged. Often subconsciously, we enjoy the unexpected “wrong” notes that take a melody in a bold new direction. We listen closely to hear how the disruption will work itself out.

For an example, listen to the jarring appoggiaturas in the second movement of Mozart’s otherwise serene Piano Concerto No. 21, K. 467. Or listen to the Richard Rodgers song, In My Own Little Corner from the 1957 television musical, Cinderella. On the words, “own little chair” Rodgers veers unexpectedly to the “wrong” note and then quickly corrects it with the note we expected. The bridge section of the song moves even further afield before quickly and skillfully sliding back into the chorus. “Oh yes, that’s where we’re supposed to be.” The familiar chorus suddenly feels fresh and new because of where we’ve been in the bridge.

The examples above are relatively subtle. But once in a while the “wrong” notes begin to really step out of line and take over the piece. Here are eight pieces where “wrong” notes move beyond subtle into the realm of shocking:

Haydn: The Creation

Franz Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, completed in 1798, is based on the Book of Genesis and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The opening Overture is a musical depiction of chaos. It’s filled with harsh dissonances and cadences which avoid a clear resolution, elements which audiences at the time would have found particularly shocking. There’s a hint of the revolutionary fire of Beethoven, who was about to begin his first string quartets in 1797 as Haydn began working on The Creation. At moments the music is so chromatic that it feels as if we’ve stepped into some unwritten Wagner prelude:

Mozart’s “Dissonance” Quartet

Listen to the opening of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 19 in C major and you’ll understand why it earned the nickname “Dissonance.” Completed in 1785, the work was dedicated to Haydn.

Chopin’s “Wrong Note” Etude

Frederic Chopin’s Etude No. 25, No. 5 in E minor is known as the “Wrong Note” Etude because of its dissonant minor seconds.

Prokofiev: Cinderella

The music of Sergei Prokofiev is full of quirky “wrong” notes. This excerpt from the ballet score, Cinderella is one example:

Ives: Symphony No. 2

The final movement of Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2 is an exuberant collage of American folk songs, hymns, and Civil War military songs. You might also hear hints of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. The end of the movement is like the grand finale of a brilliant fireworks display. Listen carefully. Something surprising happens on the final chord…

Shostakovich: Polka from “The Golden Age”

Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1930 ballet The Golden Age offered a satirical look at cultural and political currents in 1920s Europe. The Polka lands somewhere between humor and sarcasm:

Schnittke: Stille Nacht

Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) wrote this haunting version of Silent Night as a musical Christmas Card for violinist Gidon Kremer in 1978. Schnittke spent much of his life trapped behind the Soviet Iron Curtain. His music often evokes an atmosphere of gloom as well as biting protest. Pastiche and historical references frequently make up the ironic fabric of Schnittke’s music.

Wrong Note Rag

We’ll finish with music which perfectly sums up the joy of “wrong” notes. Here is an excerpt from the original Broadway cast recording of Leonard Bernstein’s 1953 musical Wonderful Town. The lyrics were written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green:

Share your own favorite “wrong note” pieces in the thread below.

The Yings Play Beethoven

The Ying Quartet (ying4.com)
The Ying Quartet (ying4.com)

 

The finest professional string quartets exhibit an almost scary sense of chemistry. This cohesiveness, almost like a sixth sense, develops when the right combination of people spend hours a day performing together. The Ying Quartet, formed at the Eastman School of Music in 1988, enjoys an additional advantage: the founding members are siblings. Only the first violin position has changed in recent years with the departure of Timothy Ying in 2009. Beginning next season, Robin Scott will join the group, replacing current first violinist, Ayano Ninomiya.

Here are the Yings performing two Beethoven quartets in 2012. String Quartet No. 4 in C minor, Op. 18 is one of Beethoven’s earliest string quartets, composed around 1801. We hear some of the “C minor fire” that I wrote about in my previous post, Beethoven and the Turbulence of C Minor. With the string quartet, Beethoven expanded on a form already developed by Haydn and Mozart. But the stormy drama and continuous surprises in this music must have been a shock to audiences at the time:

  1. Allegro ma non tanto 0:00
  2. Scherzo. Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto 8:53
  3. Menuetto. Allegretto 15:27
  4. Allegro 19:08

With String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132, we enter the strange world of late Beethoven. Beethoven’s music often plunges us into Romanticism. At moments, this quartet sounds as if it could have been written in the twentieth century. But the most unusual aspect of this music is the way it seems to take us beyond time and style. Occasionally, the music seems suspended in time. This is especially evident in the third movement, which Beethoven subtitled, Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode. 

This quartet was written after the Ninth Symphony in 1825, two years before Beethoven’s death. Just before the final movement begins, we hear a strange, passionate opera recitative without words. Similar allusions to opera occur in the final movement of the Ninth Symphony.

  1. Assai sostenuto – Allegro 0:00
  2. Allegro ma non tanto 9:56
  3. Molto adagio 18:38
  4. Alla marcia, assai vivace 34:19
  5. Allegro appassionato 36:33

Mozart in Paris: Symphony No. 31

800px-Paris_moderne._Les_Tuileries,_le_Louvre,_et_la_rue_de_Rivoli,_vue_prise_du_Jardin_des_Tuileries
Tuileries Palace in Paris where Mozart’s 31st Symphony was performed in 1778.

 

In 1778, at the age of 22, Mozart traveled to Paris with his ill mother in hopes of landing a job at the court of Versailles. Years earlier, as a child harpsichord prodigy, he had created a sensation in the French capital. Now, the mature Mozart’s music went over the heads of most French nobility. It seemed too complicated. There were just “too many notes.” As one review observed,

The composer obtained the commendation of lovers of the kind of music that interests the mind without touching the heart.

Mozart’s Parisian job search was ultimately unsuccessful. Following the death of his mother, Anna Maria, he returned to Salzburg a year later in 1779. But his time in Paris resulted in one spectacular, crowd-pleasing triumph: the Symphony No. 31 in D major, K. 297. The “Paris” Symphony took advantage of the large orchestra Mozart had at his disposal (this was his first symphony to use clarinets). The public premiere took place at the Concert Spirituel at Tuileries Palace, one of the earliest public concert venues.

Mozart’s letters to his father suggest his simultaneous contempt for the French and his determination to craft a symphony that would be popular with the audience. In this excerpt he anticipates the “Paris” Symphony’s public performance:

They both liked it very much. I too am very pleased with it. But whether other people will like it I do not know … I can vouch for the few intelligent French people who may be there; as for the stupid ones – I see no great harm if they don’t like it. But I hope that even these idiots will find something in it to like; and I’ve taken care not to overlook the premier coup d’archet [the loud, tutti opening developed by Lully which was popular with Parisian audiences at the time]…What a fuss these boors make of this! What the devil! – I can’t see any difference – they all begin together – just as they do elsewhere. It’s a joke.

Mozart went so far as to repeat a passage in the first movement that he thought would be popular with the audience. It was standard for eighteenth century audiences to applaud in the middle of movements if they found the music exciting:

In the middle of the opening Allegro there was a passage that I knew people would like; the whole audience was carried away by it, and there was tremendous applause. But I knew when I wrote it what sort of an effect it would make, and so I introduced it again at the end, with the result that it was encored.

Amazingly, in spite of all of Mozart’s efforts to “play to the crowd,” which included writing an alternate, now rarely heard Andante in 3/4 time, the most sublime music emerges. Contrary to the premise of this recent New York Times article, we don’t hear Mozart’s life experiences or his emotions in the music. In Paris, he ran up against the same mediocrity and petty politics we all encounter. But the music came from somewhere else. While Mozart was “playing to the crowd,” perhaps even poking fun at popular elements like the first movement’s opening Mannheim Rocket tutti, higher powers were playing through him.

No one is sure which passage Mozart purposely repeated in the first movement, but it could be the contrapuntal music first heard at 2:05. Listen to the layers of rhythm which explode with childlike enthusiasm in the inner voices at 2:58.

Throughout this symphony there are interesting sudden shifts between major and minor-moments which hint at a sense of melancholy lurking under the surface (for example listen to 10:12 in the second movement).

Here is a performance featuring period instruments with the Mozart Akademie Amsterdam conducted by Jaap Ter Linden:

  1. Allegro assai (0:00)
  2. Andantino (8:30)
  3. Allegro (14:10)

Mozart’s 259th Birthday

The house in Salzburg where Mozart was born on January 27, 1756.
The house in Salzburg where Mozart was born on January 27, 1756.

 

Tomorrow marks the 259th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. If you’re looking for an exciting way to celebrate, consider picking up a copy of Rachel Barton Pine’s newly-released Mozart recording. The CD features all five Mozart Violin Concertos and the Sinfonia Concertante. Barton Pine is accompanied by Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Her infectious enthusiasm for the music is apparent in this informational clip.

Born in Chicago in 1974, Rachel Barton Pine is known for her adventurous and eclectic approach to the violin, which includes a passion for Heavy Metal and her own variations on Happy BirthdayIn Mozart’s time, performers were expected to play their own cadenzas, adding freedom and spontaneity to concerto performances. Rachel Barton Pine continues this tradition on this recording.

She plays the 1742 “ex-Soldat” Guarneri del Gesu, a violin named after nineteenth century violinist Marie Soldat-Roeger, a close friend of Brahms.

51o04-avQRL._SX425_

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23

As Rachel Barton Pine mentions in her program notes, Leopold Mozart published an influential treatise on violin playing in 1756, the year his son Wolfgang was born. Mozart’s youthful violin concertos, all written during his teenage years, reflect a joyful, fun-loving attitude towards the instrument. Leopold lamented to the young Mozart,

You have no idea how well you play the violin. If only you would do yourself justice and play with boldness, spirit and fire, as if you were the greatest violinist in Europe!

Mozart’s twenty seven piano concertos are more mature. Concerto No. 23 in A major was finished on March 2, 1786, around the time The Marriage of Figaro premiered. This work contains a universe of expression. From the opening of the introduction, a musical conversation unfolds, first between the strings and woodwinds and then including the sparkling voice of the piano. The final movement is a spirited romp. Listen for the exuberant bassoon, string, and clarinet lines beginning around 19:18. The second movement takes us to a completely different world. The piano emerges as a solitary, mournful voice. In the middle of the movement (13:52), we hear music which would later turn up in Act II of Don Giovanni in the trio, Ah taci, ingiusto core” (“Ah, be quiet unjust heart”).

Here is Vladimir Ashkenazy’s 1980 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra:

  1. Allegro 0:00
  2. Adagio 11:20
  3. Allegro assai 18:51

A Sublime Moment from Mozart’s “Così fan tutte”

220px-Croce-Mozart-DetailMozart’s Così fan tutte (“Thus Do They All”) falls under the category of opera buffa, or comic opera. It’s an absurd story of “fiancée swapping,” which ultimately turns out all right in the end.

In a coffeehouse in Naples, two military officers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, boast that their fiancées, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, will never be unfaithful. Don Alfonso makes a wager that, within a day, he can prove the officers wrong. He believes that all women are ultimately fickle. Accepting the wager, Ferrando and Guglielmo pretend to go off to war, but then return in disguise and attempt to seduce the other’s lover.

Amid all of this buffoonery comes one of opera’s most sublimely expressive moments. In the Act 1 trio, Soave sia il vento (“May the wind be gentle”), the women and Alfonso wish the soldiers safe travels as their ship sails. There’s a hint of the calm ocean in the trio’s undulating string lines. But what makes this music so remarkable is the way it transcends the dramatic situation of the opera. We’re briefly transported somewhere else, entirely. The music is deeply expressive, but it can’t fully be described in words.

In a Metropolitan Opera Orchestra musician profile, cellist Kari Docter talks about a life-changing experience which resulted from hearing Mozart’s Soave sia il vento during a Met rehearsal.

Here are Thomas Allen (Don Alfonso), Susanne Mentzer (Dorabella), and Carol Vaness (Fiordiligi) in a 1996 Metropolitan Opera production, conducted by James Levine:

Four Musical Firsts

firsts

In celebration of the beginning of a new year, here are four pieces which qualify as musical “firsts.” Listen to the music on the list and then share your own favorite musical “firsts” in the comment thread below.

Monteverdi’s “Orfeo”

Let’s start with the birth of opera. Italian Renaissance composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) is often credited with singlehandedly inventing the art form. In reality, opera gradually evolved out of Intermedio, music and dance sequences which were performed between the acts of early seventeenth century plays. At least two fledgling operas by Jacopo Peri, Dafne (1598), and Euridice (1600), predated Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607). But with Orfeo, Monteverdi assembled all of the pre-existing building blocks (aria, recitative, chorus) to create the first mature and fully developed opera. For the first time the blending of music, libretto and staging realized its full dramatic potential. Four hundred years later, Monteverdi’s Orfeo is still regularly performed.

Listen to the haunting recitative from Act 3,  Possente spirto (“Mighty spirit and formidable god”), in which Orpheus attempts to cross the river Styx into Hades.

Learn more about the history and synopsis of Orfeo here.

Mozart’s First Symphony

Mozart was eight years old when he wrote Symphony No. 1 in E-flat major, K. 16. Although he was already known throughout Europe as a wunderkind piano sensation, he had composed little music. The First Symphony was written in London (Chelsea) during the summer of 1764 while the Mozart family was in the middle of a concert tour of Europe. A plaque marks the house today.

Listen carefully to the four note motive in the opening of the second movement (6:07). This motive returns in the final movement of Mozart’s final symphony (listen to Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter” here).

Beethoven’s First Violin Sonata

The opening of the first movement of Beethoven’s First Violin Sonata grabs your attention as if to say, “Here I am!” This opening firmly establishes the home key of D major, but listen to the way we’re pulled into increasingly distant keys as the movement progresses (especially in the development section beginning at 5:26). This opening movement is marked, Allegro con brio (with fire). Listen to the dialogue between the violin and piano.

Beethoven dedicated this sonata, written in 1798, to his contemporary, Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), the Italian composer who popular legend has erroneously accused of murdering Mozart. The final movement seems to sparkle with the light frivolity and humor of Italian opera.

Here is a great recording by violinist Pamela Frank and her father, the legendary pianist Claude Frank, who passed away last week:

Listen to the second and third movements.

 Schoenberg’s Five Piano Pieces, Op. 23

Let’s finish with a dose of atonality. In Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Piano Pieces, Op. 23, written in 1923, harmonic relationships between pitches are almost completely gone. The final piece is considered to be the first example of twelve-tone composition. This is a highly ordered technique which ensures that all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale remain equal and independent. Schoenberg described this technique, also known as Serialism, as a:

method of composing with twelve tones which are related only with one another.

Here is Glenn Gould’s recording: