performed by Dame Mitsuko Uchida and the English Chamber Orchestra under Sir Jeffrey Tate
(cover image by Leonard Cotte)
Mozart’s ninth piano concerto is actually his fifth original concerto for the piano (after the first four, which were more or less homework exercises based on works from other composers), and was composed in 1777, about 9 months after the eighth concerto. (I just now realized it’s been over a year since we’ve touched one of Mozart’s piano concertos. Oops.)
This work is commonly referred to as Jeunehomme, but that’s wrong. Its origins lie in the name of the work’s recipient, Victoire Jenamy, who was the daughter of Jean-Georges Noverre, “a French dancer and balletmaster.” Victoire herself was apparently a respectable pianist who may have performed the work before Mozart himself did on October 4, 1777. That was at least his first time performing it, and perhaps the premiere of the work.
Of the piano concertos for only one piano, this is the last of the so-called ‘Salzburg concertos,’ and it really is a phenomenal piece of music. Someone somewhere called it Mozart’s Eroica, in reference the watershed moment that Beethoven’s third was for his own career, if either of these composers can said to have had a breakthrough moment. Ah, turns out it was Alfred (not Albert) Einstein; Charles Rosen calls it “perhaps the first unequivocal masterpiece [of the] classical style.”
So much of Mozart’s music that we’ve discussed thus far (and there’s been a lot of it; he’s the second-most featured composer on the blog, after Beethoven), not sadly, but perhaps… uneventfully, is almost all (with the exception of the clarinet quintet, which we will absolutely revisit when the time comes) very early, more an indication of potential and promise than actual raw talent or genius. If you think that’s some kind of snub, listen to any of the previous concertos and compare them to this one. It’s cut from a different cloth. In fact, this piece was played for Mozart’s first public Vienna concert in 1781.
The work is in three movements, as you would expect, and has a duration of about a half hour. Per Wikipedia:
- Allegro, in E♭ major and common time
- Andantino, in C minor
- Rondo (Presto), in E♭ major and cut time
The movements are of almost equal length, the central andantino being slightly longer than the rest.
In our discussion of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto, we said it was somewhat unique in that the piano appears from the very beginning of the work; Beethoven wasn’t the first to do that, though. Mozart here gives us a little hello from the piano, but it quickly disappears to let the orchestra properly present the exposition as it should.
We get the two themes for this piece, which are glimmering, bold, arrestingly gorgeous, elegant, polished. It’s absolute magnificence. The sonata form is also very easy to follow, actually. The second theme, after the peroration of the first subject, sounds operatic and lyrical, and actually a lot like his famous aria ‘Voi che sapete’ from Le Nozze di Figaro. Listen first to the second theme of the first movement below, and then below that to the aria.
That’s really a side note, but it does underline the lyrical, sweet, elegant soul that this concerto possesses. It’s music that makes you close your eyes and take a good, deep breath.
Wait for the piano’s entry, a magical, exciting moment in this work, where the instrument introduces a bit of new material, visits the first two themes, before getting to the development, and then the recapitulation with a cadenza, of which Mozart wrote two for this sublime first movement.
As bright and shining as the first movement was, we need something that can stand up to it, and the shadow that this central movement casts is enough to block out most of the rays of the first movement. It’s in the relative minor key, Cm, and is grippingly, stirringly tragic. It tugs strongly at your soul, without ever being maudlin. The melancholy is heartfelt, so genuine for a composer of Mozart’s youth at the time, and again, to my ear (and heart), such a huge step forward from the previous concertos. There is in fact a passage that moves back to E-flat major, but even then, there’s only a slight glimmer of sunshine.
It returns, however, in the finale, with a brilliance that washes away and stands in such breathtaking contrast to the tragedy of the central and longest movement. It’s a celebration, again beginning with solo piano, who presents an ebullient theme for this rondo. Obviously presto, it is as if the piano calls the orchestra to life, as they respond in kind. As a rondo, we hear a few different approaches to triumph and elation, but are not without some contrast in the form of darker sections, but overall the vitality in this finale, and in the work overall, including the blistering humanness of the second movement, is just spellbinding, a true masterpiece.
We may now finally be on the way to the unquestionable greatness that is Mozart, rather than just the exceptionally talented teenager. It is a work of perfect balance, of majesty, of exceptional feeling and the clarity that obviously accompanies Mozart’s works for the piano.
This work is just sheer, refreshing joy, and a piece I’ve truly loved listening to over and over. In an effort to try to do things as chronologically as possible, we’ll be hitting a few of Wolfie’s piano sonatas before getting back to two more piano concertos. We will at this point be approaching 1780 in the composer’s timeline with his piano concertos and sonatas, but are way behind as symphonies go, still back in 1773 or something, so we’ll do a bit of catching up there (we’re in the low twenties for his symphonies), maybe featuring Mozart next year the way I am featuring Beethoven this year.
But that’s another discussion for another time. Stay tuned for more music from Mozart, and thank you so much for reading.