Mozart Piano Concerto no. 5 in D, K175

performed by the English Chamber Orchestra under Jeffrey Tate, Mitsuko Uchida, piano

Finally something original.
So it’s been 24 hours since our last Mozart concerto, and a few years since our little composer put his pen to paper for another concerto.
This one, however, is original. I’ll make mention that I’m not including the three unnumbered concerti orchestrated from sonatas of J.S. Bach, mostly because they’re not numbered and because I didn’t know they existed (because they aren’t included in any of the box sets I’ve been browsing), mostly the latter. I might get around to them eventually, but then again, I haven’t gotten around to ANY Bach at all yet, which I know is a problem. I know. I do.
So what was he doing while he wasn’t writing piano concertos? Well, he’d written a few operas, at least a few Missa Brevis, at least one Te Deum, 13 string quartets, a handful of church sonatas, his symphonies no.s 6-25 (that’s 20 symphonies), and tons of other smaller works, not to mention the fifteen violin sonatas he wrote before the ‘childhood arrangements’ we’ve been talking about. I referred to the first four piano concertos as his ‘student concertos,’ but Wikipedia’s use of “childhood arrangements” is perhaps even more fitting.
Regardless, we have finally moved into original compositions by the (now not-so-young) Mozart, and this piece deserves more attention than its predecessors.

It is also a piece that Mozart spoke of fondly and continued to perform up to the last year of his life. I may not share the same enthusiasm for the piece, but it is undoubtedly far more developed a work than any of the “arrangement” concertos we’ve talked about thus far. It has both more focus on the piano as well as more attention given to the orchestra, less as a platter for the piano to be served on, but includes some degree of contrast and interest of its own, albeit not much. In any case, it feels more… mature. 
Before we get to this point, though, I want to preface our discussions from here on by saying that much of Mozart’s genius is perhaps difficult for me to follow. Robert Levin, fantastic pianist and Mozart scholar says in a lecture at Cambridge that Mozart’s music is “too easy for children and too difficult for adults” (perhaps not exactly quoted, but probably). That lecture can be found here, and for more information about it, please jump to the bottom of this article. It’s a bit of an aside, and only for the more devoted. What I think is required reading is the following, part three of a smaller lecture that I will be sharing completely out of order over the next few articles. Please watch the first part of this (the latter part introduces and talks about a piece we will discuss tomorrow). 

There is no better way that could have been said. I interject this thought here because I feel my discussions of Mozart’s (original) music will be terribly lacking in what sounds like academic appreciation or artistic passion. I am not a performer. I am an amateur listener, and even in that capacity, it does delight, but upon closer inspection, it is satisfying (and perhaps a relief) to see that it’s not all the same.
Back to this first original of the composer’s concerti.
The first movement feels fresh and exciting from the beginning. Freedom, perhaps, to
write your own melody? The orchestra introduces our two themes before the piano enters, as would be expected, and it’s about as gripping an entry as an early Classical era piece could open. The piano enters, and there is a deceptive deal of stuff going on as it presents the themes introduced by the orchestra. The development is full of things one would expect from a Classical concerto: modulations and piano very much at the forefront with orchestral backdrop. There are nice passages in distant keys and all that. There’s a fancy little cadenza at the end of the movement, and the orchestra picks up the melody to end the movement.
The second movement is peaceful and pretty. There are some high horns in the background at the beginning, and tacit trumpets and timpani add to this quieter, almost chamber-music-scale movement. It feels almost like a lullaby, or like some nursery rhyme theme is going to appear somewhere. There’s nothing sudden about this movement. It’s warm and cozy. There’s a deceptive cadence or two in there, and even in its more dramatic moments of contrast or climax, it’s still delicate and round. It’s nothing inspiring or tear-jerking, just very very nice. There’s not a single moment to jar you out of your slumber if this movement lasted for eight hours, not even the very end.
The third and final movement introduces contrapuntal ideas to the sonata form. It opens with long chords in strings. This movement, while marked a rondo, is apparently in sonata form. That’s what Wikipedia tells me. This is the shortest movement, and it feels… Related to the first, in some way… maybe? It feels crisply simple, confident, lively, and contrapuntal. There’s back and forth between the piano and orchestra and some noticeable dynamic contrast. This movement was later replaced by the Rondo in D major, K.382, a piece of its own that was originally intended to be a more suitable ending for this concerto, at least in the context of an upcoming trip to Vienna at the time. The replacement rondo is technically a set of variations, and is twice as long as this movement. It was almost a decade after the original writing of this concerto that the replacement was made, perhaps only for Viennese audiences. In any case, it feels much more mature and interesting, polished and lyrical. It’s instantly enjoyable, and in fact was encored for its first Vienna performance.
The concert in its original form was a big hit in Mannheim, but Mozart was industrious enough to rework some of his material in the interest of making a good impression, and that he did. The new rondo, below, is delightful. It has a flute, where the original concerto did not.

My general sentiment about the piece is that, if one thinks of a “fifth concerto,” it may imply some expectation of greatness. Only Beethoven’s “emperor” or Saint-Saen’s, or Prokofiev’s  come to mind as other fifth piano concertos. However, not counting the first four concertos or the Bach arrangements, this is actually his first original concerto. So, as a first piano concerto from a 17-year-old composer, it’s pretty great. But then again, think of the experience this composer had. Again, by 17 he’d composed more music than many composers publish in their entire careers. To put it in perspective, if we stick to the literal meaning of the phrase, it would be around this time that Mozart would be experiencing his ‘mid-life crisis,’ as he passed at only 35 years old. That is to say that these can be considered mature works, but that is not the same as saying they are indicative of his late style. Does that make sense? Levin’s example of focusing a lens in the beginning of the above talk is superb, but he also explains that point fantastically below before introducing the instrument(s) he was working with.

I wonder if some of Mozart’s fondness for the piece was rooted in nostalgia of some kind, whether of his youth or of its success in Vienna. It’s a pleasant enough piece for sure, head and shoulders above the “slight” works we’ve been discussing this week, but after the attention I’ve given it lately, I can say there is a ton here that’s going to pull me back for additional listenings. It’s an outstanding composition for a seventeen-year-old, but it’s not one I’m going to have on repeat.
I do want to make mention of some of the discussion in the comments about the first YouTube video above, the one of Uchida/Tate. A few people complained about her ‘improvising’ or ornamenting the concerto and diverting from the score as written. The retort was that Mozart himself did this, and while I can’t point on a score to where this is/isn’t done, I see Uchida as one of the greatest Mozart interpreters of recent generations and I trust her musical and historical judgment. She is a genius.

The qualities that are enjoyable are its clarity, lyricism, and general proper-ness. It reminds me of the clarinet quintet, in that respect, but not to the same degree. That is a stunningly beautiful, expressive, clean work, and that quality seems to show up here, and we exchange it for some of the flash and bombast that would accompany a Brahms or Rachmaninoff concerto, to make a very unfair comparison. It isn’t that, but there’s not a thing about it that’s worth criticizing. Well done, sir. Tomorrow we continue our discussion of Mozart with his first piano sonata. 

* * *
That lecture. 

This is a lecture that is not really for beginners. Some of the details were rather difficult to follow for me, but the main point is that he has a passion for and understands Mozart, almost like he knew the guy. If you’re not interested in watching the whole hour-long lecture, I understand, but be patient. I will be sharing some shorter excerpts of his in the articles to come in the next few days. The main point above is this: Mozart was a genius. He didn’t just write pretty music, he wrote puzzles. Ideas of contrast and getting from A to B in a certain way, either by satisfying suspicions or creating surprises, creates a dazzling piece of music either way. It’s far too deep a rabbit hole for me to begin to try to analyze myself, but it’s the kind of thing pianists themselves must understand when performing these pieces.

(One of the most fascinating bits in this lecture is at about the twenty-minute mark where he starts talking about a painting and the piece of music in it.) It’s when you listen to someone with the passion and insight of someone like this that you can’t help but be awed and fascinated. Thanks for reading. 

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