performed by Andras Schiff, Daniel Barenboim, and Georg Solti with the English Chamber Orchestra (I think)
Talk about extravagant. Why three pianos?
I thought the same thing, and I’ll tell you why, or rather Wikipedia will:
The concerto is often nicknamed “Lodron” because it was commissioned by Countess Antonia Lodron to be played with her two daughters Aloysia and Giuseppa.
That’s tender, isn’t it? The work was completed something like a month after the sixth piano concerto (for a mere one piano), and later rearranged it for performance using only two pianos, for himself and another pianist, in Salzburg.
If you didn’t know any better, though, you might not even know that this piece has as much keyboarding going on as it does. The advantage of YouTube here is wonderful. There’s clearly lots of keys being struck, and there’s a very full sound when three pianos play in unison, but it can be difficult to distinguish who is playing when, so I highly recommend watching the above video for a piano trio (a literal trio of pianos) and orchestra perform this 23-ish minute three-movement work.
It seems entirely unnecessary to have three pianos on stage, each echoing one another, then playing in unison back and forth, but you may notice that the three piano parts are of unequal difficulty, the third piano (have I ever written that ever?) part being far less demanding and suitable for one of the Lodron daughters.
It seems then, that we may have already given the work more attention than most give it. John Mangum’s program notes for this work for the San Francisco Symphony quote Alfred Einstein (not Albert) when he says:
“…we shall not concern ourselves further with the purely galant Concerto for Three Pianos…”
and Mangum adds that “most writers content themselves with the circumstances of the work’s creation, probably because those help explain the music of the Concerto.” He is not one of those writers, apparently, because he continues.
It’s written in a very standard form, the first of three movements giving us a sonata-allegro form, beginning with a long introduction typical for the time before the pianos restate this content. The purpose of the commission, one might guess, was to showcase the performers, and the parts show, as Mangum says, that at least Mother and older daughter were rather fine pianists, and the third part was left for the youngest daughter.
Is this a sellout piece? Did Mozart do it for the dollar? One can see how it’s a bit of a novelty piece, and the only convincing reason for having three pianos is that the mother-daughter story is kind of touching. I also imagine it’s much more engaging live, with the conversation between the pianists, and the orchestra, which we see more of in the end of the first movement.
The pianists have been given their showy first movement, but they continue in the second, with lots of unison or back-and-forth passages. It’s the orchestral writing that shines here, though, despite how dwarfed they seem in the above video, squeezed to the fringes of the stage by three enormous pianos.
Mangum says that “The soloists open the rondo-finale, whose brief theme is infused with the courtly spirit of the minuet, entirely appropriate for a work meant for a countess’ musical salon,” and this mirrors the finale of the sixth concerto (and many others, I’m sure) with a lively dance-like finish, not void of one of Mozart’s little jokes, “a trick coda, followed by the real thing,” says Mangum.
I opened this article with the word ‘extravagant’ because it’s the only piece I can currently think of written for three pianos (and indeed a Google search returns no other works of this kind), but all in all, the music is far from extravagant or overwhelming. As we’ve said, it was condensed down to a still-manageable form for two pianos, a far more common but still novelty form. The finale to is largely pretty music. There’s lots to admire here, but nothing particular to this work that we don’t find, perhaps in even greater measure, in later works from the composer.
The one unique thing about this work would be to see it performed live (or online as we can here) and behold the interaction among soloists and the execution of the work.
I wonder what Mozart got paid for this, if the benefit to him was largely monetary, or if he was making friends with the right people. It was a good opportunity of some kind, I’m sure, but again, aside from the novelty of the multiple pianos, certainly a hindrance to its wider performance, most people still look to the later works. I welcome comments that sing the unique praises of this work, but for now, I’m satisfied knowing this much about it.
We have one more concerto from Mozart before we move on to someone else. There’s so much piano music from him, which means some catching up to do, since we’ve already discussed the first 20+ symphonies. All in due time, I’m sure, but stay tuned, and thank you for reading.