Programme note to follow.
Programme note to follow.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto in B flat major, K595 (1791)
"Everything is cold for me – ice cold," wrote Mozart at the start of what was to be the last year of his life. He was not referring to the Viennese weather. His fame as Europe’s finest pianist-composer, who had brought the art of the piano concerto to its zenith, was dwindling. He had cash-flow problems, though these were in the process of being resolved. He was suffering from depression. But, as Meynard Solomon declared in his great Mozart biography, he "somehow managed to stem the drift into silence". He did so with a chain of masterpieces whose sheer quantity and variety - from The Magic Flute to the most subtle sequences of ballroom dances - he had not previously surpassed.
At the beginning of January he completed the last of his piano concertos, K595 in B flat major. His Clarinet Concerto, his last great string quintet, his last two operas, and a group of haunting miniatures - the Little German Cantata, the touching Ave Verum Corpus, the music for mechanical organ, the last few songs - still lay ahead, as also did the great unfinished Requiem. Though the last piano concerto has been thought to possess the quality of a 'transfigured farewell' - a very apt phrase with which to describe it - there is not the slightest evidence that Mozart himself thought about it that way, or that when he wrote it he was more than usually aware of his own impending demise. Those who say the music contains intimations of Mozart’s death are merely being wise after the event. His death-consciousness applied to the fate of all humanity.
Yet after the glitter of the ceremonial Coronation concerto, written three years previously, there is undoubtedly something very pared-down about K595, something conspicuously inward-looking about its mood. Its orchestration, with just a single flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns and strings, but no clarinets and certainly no trumpets and drums, is almost minimalist by Mozart’s standards at the time. Even the movement headings - 'Allegro', 'Larghetto', 'Allegro' - are reduced to single words. All this seems significant, but whether it signifies death or what might have been the start of a new phase in Mozart’s output of concertos is another matter.
Whatever else he had in mind - and it looked like quite a lot - further piano concertos at that point looked unlikely. When he played K595 on 4 March 1791, it was destined to be his last public appearance as a solo pianist before his death nine months later. The person who made it possible was an old acquaintance - the successful clarinettist Joseph Baehr - who slotted it into a concert in which Mozart was quite clearly not the star. The programme, given in the hall of a restaurant owner round the corner from Mozart’s apartment, featured Baehr himself as the main attraction. Next in importance was the singer Aloysia Lange, Mozart’s sister-in-law, whom he had loved and once hoped to marry. The information that "Herr Kapellmeister Mozart will play a concerto on the fortepiano" came third in line.
Did the work’s murmuring, unhurried opening make its mark? Were the downward scales and chromaticisms thought to possess a forlorn wraithlike eloquence? Was the flow of the music, in which one theme merges with the next, perceived to be beautifully sustained or did the audience fail to grasp such extraordinary continuity of line? Mozart’s own cadenza, written into the score, adds to the first movement’s special unity, as does the similarly personal cadenza in the finale.
The simplicity of the slow movement, which one distinguished but sometimes imperceptive authority on Mozart’s concertos has deemed to be a sign of waning inspiration, is perfectly in keeping with the veiled beauty of the rest of the work. Even the buoyant main theme of the rondo finale, which in an earlier concerto might have sounded like a vigorous hunting motif, has a delicacy appropriate to the intimacy of the music. It is no surprise that Mozart employed almost the same melody in one of his last songs, entitled 'Longing for Spring'.
Though it might seem sentimental to point out that 1791’s was to be Mozart’s last spring, the poignancy of the music makes the temptation irresistible. Yet there is also a lightweight muscularity about this movement which makes it possible to draw quite different conclusions about its meaning. In Mozart's last piano concerto, as in so many of its great predecessors, ambiguity reigned supreme.
© Conrad Wilson
A perfect summer evening’s entertainment – the music of Mozart performed by one of the world’s finest chamber orchestras. No one has better credentials to direct this concert than violinist Alexander Janiczek, himself a native of Mozart’s hometown Salzburg. He contrasts the Symphony No 21, written when Mozart was aged 16, with one of the composer’s last great symphonies – the dramatic No 39. The SCO’s virtuoso Principal Horn Alec Frank-Gemmill is the soloist in the Fourth Horn Concerto.
Tickets are available from Cherry Duncan 01320 351 230 and Clare Levings 01320 351 254