performed by Jenő Jandó, Dénes Várjon, pianos, and the Concentus Hungaricus under Mátyás Antal, or as below, with Alfred Brendel, Imogen Cooper and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields under Sir Neville Marriner
(cover image by Nicolas Gras)
I’ve always thought that so many of the concertos for multiple instruments are really just novelties, mostly written under circumstances requiring or inviting there to be more than one soloist, and making a concession that seems in most cases to sacrifice musical integrity as a result. Fine. I said it.
I have very little excitement over Beethoven’s triple concerto, and found Mozart’s previous effort (K. 242, for two or three pianos) to be unmemorable. Here, though, I really feel like I’m convinced, like I can stand behind its merits, partly because it’s just such a joyous, richly joyous piece.
It’s actually not known when this piece came into being. Some research apparently shows that cadenzas for the first and final movements were written on a kind of paper that the composer used between 1775 and 1777, but most sources cite its composition (or perhaps at very least completion) as being in 1779.
The piece was thought to be a family affair, written for Mozart to perform with his sister Maria Anna (or the far more elegant ‘Nannerl’). Part of what makes this piece more engaging as a double concerto is that the dialogue between the two pianos is meaningful. If you pay even just a little bit of attention, you can hear it in the recording, even though it may just sound like a massive pianist with a massive piano playing LOTS of music all at the same time. There’s actual interaction happening, and as a result, the orchestra takes more of a backseat than usual.
The work, as is typical, is in three movements, as follows, with a duration of about 24 minutes:
- Allegro, common time
- Andante, B-flat major 3/4
- Rondo: Allegro 2/4
In contrast with the unconventional appearance of the piano at the very opening of the ninth piano concerto, we get nothing from either piano in the introduction to this work. It’s a textbook orchestral beginning, and they best participate while they can, because they’re soon to become the third wheel to the conversation between the two pianos, which bound onto the scene in a hearty, unison call. Steven Ledbetter says that it is “as if Mozart is thoroughly enjoying himself and letting his ideas flow freely.” And it really is, to the point that it almost sounds like the two siblings take some time to be rambunctious and play while daddy is out running errands. They’re just having fun. That being said, it still has the elegance and polish that we’d expect from Mozart, or the era in general, but has an excitement unique to this piece (at least in his compositions thus far).
Also, always listen for Mozart’s use of the minor key in a major-key work. Almost no matter how sunny and bright a piece is, we always get a contrast that makes the whole thing overall that much more rewarding, like the salt on caramel or chocolate.
In the second movement, the orchestra all but disappears, giving them a role much like that of Chopin’s piano concertos (maybe they would be more interesting with another piano part), but we could certainly use a bit of quiet after the excitement of the first movement. It is ornate, though, and the orchestra rightly takes the role of service staff who enter the scene here and there to offer refreshments or a bit of food while the pianos continue their conversation.
The orchestral introduction to the finale is thrilling. It’s not necessarily that it itself is exciting, but it conveys a sense that something exciting is right around the corner. The theme the orchestra introduces is crisp and lively and refreshing, and even before the pianos enter, we can kind of anticipate what they might say, or at least how they’ll say it. There’s a propulsive sense of forward motion; ‘drive’ would be too strong a word, but the besides the current of the work, there’s also a sense of effortlessness, spontaneity. With the final appearance of the rondo theme, though, we never get the sense that the movement has lost its way.
It’s just beautiful writing, and there’s a real unmistakable sense of joy that at least I feel wouldn’t have otherwise been conveyed by just one piano. Part of that exuberance is in the slight extravagance of having two pianos at play here, generating a greater sense of energy and interaction. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this piece; it’s far more than just a curiosity.
Well, we’re nearing the end of a stretch of a few weeks’ worth of Mozart pieces, but there is one more left before we start seeing almost as much Beethoven, so please do stay tuned for that and thank you so much for reading.