Piano Concerto No 23 in A K488

Programme note

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto in A major, K488 (1786)

Allegro assai

There was a time - not much more than half a century ago - when K488 was one of the few Mozart piano concertos regularly played in Britain. Today it remains a special favourite, adored for the poise and beauty of its first movement, the forlorn expressiveness of its adagio, the inspired prattle of its finale. Composed in tandem with The Marriage of Figaro in 1786, it is the product of one of Mozart’s greatest Viennese years, during which he wrote two other piano concertos, the ‘Prague’ symphony, much fine chamber music and, for a celebration at the palace of Schonbrunn, his pithy operatic send-up entitled The Impresario.

Innovatively, the concerto’s orchestration, though lightweight, included a pair of clarinets, instruments Mozart associated with Vienna and his friend Anton Stadler and had employed in only one previous concerto. Apprehensive that orchestras might not have clarinets available, he interestingly suggested that a solo violin and viola could substitute for them. Yet much of the mellifluous sweetness of the music is dependent upon their presence and on the absence here of more nasal oboe tone. Sweetness, however, does not preclude sadness, which sometimes darkens the pearly melodic interplay between soloist and orchestra in the first movement.

On the other hand, the stark simplicity of the adagio, Mozart’s last of its kind in a minor key (not, it must be said, that he wrote many such), sounds like uninterrupted tragedy. The pulse is that of a very slow siciliano, the Sicilian rhythm of a gently rocking boat, much used in baroque operas and concertos, but greatly savoured by Mozart also, especially in this work. Yet the music looks forward, as well as backwards, anticipating Pamina’s lament in The Magic Flute, though containing none of that aria’s elaborate decorations. Whether or not the soloist chooses to insert any of his or her own, or to leave Mozart’s bare lines and huge, slow leaps to speak for themselves, the music has an operatic intensity highlighted by the closing bars, with their softly insistent, curiously disturbing pizzicato strings.

To this mood of desolation, the mercurial wit and audacious modulations of the finale are the perfect antidote. The scale passages here are no ordinary scale passages, but Mozartian comedy at its most sublimely zany and merrily audacious. At the same time, the entire work has a strangely spectral quality. In the words of one observer, it is a fragile structure of glass, through which the piano itself is often heard only faintly.

© Conrad Wilson