Mozart Piano Concerto no. 6 in B-flat, K. 238

performed by Mitsuko Uchida and the English Chamber Orchestra under Jeffrey Tate, or below from Murray Perahia and the English Chamber Orchestra

Well, we did some sonatas, and now, as you should have expected, some concertos.

(A quick note on the Köchel catalogue numbers in case you didn’t read the articles from the past few days… Even though the numbers for these concertos [today and tomorrow and the day after] are lower than the sonatas from this week, they were actually written after those sonatas. A revised or updated or improved [?] Köchel catalogue reflects this, and they are given lower numbers to reflect their composition in 1774-75.)

It was something like two summers ago that I did that entire month of piano works, with a post every day, covering some early piano works from some of the most notable composers for the instrument. That being said, after Mozart got something like eight featured works in that stretch, we still are just now getting to his first wholly original piano concerto.
As you may know, the first five are basically rearrangements of content from piano sonatas or other works from other composers that the (very) young Mozart worked into very simple, straightforward piano concertos. It’s quite rare ever to hear them performed, and some recorded cycles apparently don’t even include them, but today we begin his piano concerto cycle in earnest, with the sixth, from January of 1776.

The fantastically named Cuthbert Girdlestone, in Mozart’s Piano Concertos, refers to this work and the two that quickly followed it that same year as being in a galant style. What’s that?

Wikipedia tells us that the galant style:

…featured a return to simplicity and immediacy of appeal after the complexity of the late Baroque era. This meant simpler, more song-like melodies, decreased use of polyphony, short, periodic phrases, a reduced harmonic vocabulary emphasizing tonic and dominant, and a clear distinction between soloist and accompaniment.

Have a listen to some of the more complex music from Bach, heavy with almost spiritual counterpoint, polyphony, density, oozing with genius, and then with something from this lighter period, and you’ll generally get the idea. Mozart’s three piano concertos of 1776, all of which we will talk about this week, are good examples of that.

The work is in three movements, and was never published in his lifetime, although he performed it on a few occasions. The work lasts, in Uchida’s performance, exactly 21 minutes, with the movements being of almost equal length.

Wonderfully, Angela Hewitt has provided program notes for her recordings of the concertos on Hyperion, and we will be consulting them for these articles. Her notes on the sixth can be found here. She first makes note that although we’re calling it a ‘piano’ concerto, it was likely performed by the composer and many others on a harpsichord, since “in Salzburg in 1776 there were reportedly no fortepianos at all.”

I’ll be honest: I don’t have a ton to say about these rather early works, so my thoughts will mostly be those prompted by the works than about the works themselves. Hewitt says that the work presents “nothing too demanding on the listener,” but states that “it nevertheless is completely captivating.” I don’t know what of Mozart’s oeuvre would be demanding for the listener to begin with, but it could be suggested she’s stating in her very English way that the work may be less than grippingly exciting.

And indeed, it is a light, “open” work. Mozart’s marking for the first movement is Allegro aperto, the second word literally meaning ‘open’, as of a door. Hewitt says:

Literally translating as ‘open’ or ‘frank’, we are not sure of the exact meaning of this indication, but surely it denotes radiance and gaiety.

And that is certainly what we hear in this first movement. There’s nothing sinister or too dramatic going on, just really beautiful straightforward music, and Hewitt mentions that this work wears two hats, or did at the time, showing off the young performers’ skill while also being very pleasant for audiences, true entertainment.

So is there a ton to analyze or examine here? Well, let’s look at what shows up in these works that we will see in his more mature compositions. After all, he’s 20 years old by this time, he’d written no small number of compositions. The symphony that follows this concerto is the 31st, so we can’t really say he’s an immature young composer, but this is, at least relatively speaking, diet Mozart if there ever was any.

The first movement is light, fresh, rhythmically crisp, pianistic, and just generally pleasant. It’s not ostentatious or overambitious. The remaining movements may be more indicative of his later, more mature style.

The second movement is, as Hewitt says, of “a sweeter, more gentle character. The music is simple, varied slightly on its return in a different key,” and she says she hears the “germ” of the C major K467 concerto. What’s most compelling in this work, though, is the “chiaroscuro” effect, what Hewitt identifies as “the ability to switch between minor and major in a flash.” If you’re not sure what chiaroscuro is, it means “light-dark” in Italian, and looks something like this:

That’s Gerard von Honthorst’s The Matchmaker. Rembrandt is also very famous for this breathtakingly stark contrast between light and dark, giving an intensity and sense of tactile depth to a work, and Mozart is able to do the same in this second movement, contrasting light, sunny major keys with darker minor keys, but never a cataclysmic minor-key tragedy, just light and shadow.

The finale reminds us that the work is entertainment, and Hewitt describes it as “pure dance music, with elegant rhythmic gestures from both orchestra and soloist.” Elegant is really the perfect word for this music, isn’t it? It’s not weighed down by any particular ambition, even giving some of the spotlight to other instruments. We see the horns have moments to shine here, and in this bright, elegantly lively movement, after some lively minor-key passages and a cadenza, the final word comes from the oboe, not the piano, and the work ends slightly abruptly.

I’ll start a little train of thought here about ‘pretty music’ that I might eventually devote a whole article to. I was having a conversation with a friend recently (and you know who you are if you’re reading) about ‘pretty music.’ This friend and I have quite different tastes in music, but my sentiments overall were that ‘pretty’ doesn’t always equate to, or rather very rarely equates to, interesting, and if so, it doesn’t hold my attention for very long.

There’s a difference, to me, between ‘pretty’ and ‘beautiful.’ This may seem like semantics, but beautiful can encompass pain and tragedy and sorrow in music or literature, while ‘pretty’ is, to me, just one specific, very limited sliver of beauty, and one that doesn’t offer very much interest.

Mozart’s music here isn’t just pretty, but it certainly (and for obvious reasons) doesn’t hold a candle to his later, more mature compositions. I can’t say this is a work I’ll come back to often, and even Hewitt says:

I admit to having once considered the early concertos not very interesting, but having now taken this piece into my repertoire I have changed my mind completely.

Mozart’s particular approach to beauty, even here, isn’t just a mound of shimmery tunes, but fine detail, delicacy, fun, contrast, and a craftsmanship far beyond a twenty-year-old’s years, no?

We’ll hear more of this particular attractiveness in the other two concertos for this week, as we move away from the symphonic series and focus on piano stuff for a while, so do stay tuned, and thanks for listening.


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