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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto in C major, K503 (1786)
Of all Mozart’s piano concertos, this is the biggest, grandest, most sonorous. Separating itself from the tragic manner of its immediate predecessor in C minor, K491, it represents the C major summit of the 30-year-old composer's Viennese style. The two piano concertos that were still to come sound in comparison more like transitional works leading who knows where. All that can be said of them is that the so-called Coronation Concerto, K537, contains ornate and glittering foretastes of Chopin and that the poignant, intimate B flat major, K595, predicts a new purification of his style.
If the great C major concerto - the last of four in that key - anticipates anybody, it is usually said to be Beethoven, particularly the Beethoven of the C major and C minor (Nos 1 and 3) piano concertos, which employ similar march rhythms, punchy chords, sharp contrasts between major and minor. Yet to perform Mozart’s concerto as if it were Beethoven would be a serious mistake. The music is Mozart through and through, in spite of its use (not for the first time) of martial trumpets and drums, and, in the first movement, blocks of chords rather than flowing lines. Perhaps the sheer scale of the music has slightly acted against its popularity. Eric Blom damaged the cause of this concerto by calling it "‘frigid and unoriginal" in his long-established Master Musician study of the composer. Donald Francis Tovey and Charles Rosen, on the other hand, deemed it worthy of the deepest, most appreciative analysis.
It is a masterpiece not only magisterial but moving – broad and splendid, yet keenly detailed, in the first movement; touchingly chaste in the operatic sweetness of the slow movement, with its huge, expressively vocal leaps in the solo part; and filled with gleams and shadows in the animated gavotte-like finale. Yet this is not, on the whole, one of Mozart's most obviously operatic concertos. Its Beethovenian anticipations are quite conspicuous. Even the predominant four-note rhythm of the first movement was to be employed by Beethoven in the first movement of his Fourth Piano Concerto and, more strenuously, in the first movement of his Fifth Symphony.
It is in the final rondo, however, that we encounter the work's most magical moment, for here, amid all the Mozartian wit, the music is suddenly filled for a page or two with a wistful sense of life's fragile beauty and transitoriness. It’s a passage which, once identified by the listener, always stands out. First, after a few brisk chords from the orchestra, the piano quite unemphatically plays a flowing phrase, answered by the woodwind. Then the piano extends the phrase, and the woodwind extend the repetition. That is all. There is no more to it than that. The phrase never returns. But Mozart wrote nothing better, lovelier, or more piercing in its combination of joy and sadness than this brief aside, confirming things - the tiny sighs amid the big declamations of the first movement, the melancholy behind the descending notes of the andante - that have been only hinted at earlier in the concerto.
© Conrad Wilson