Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488
solo piano, flute, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings
notes by Chris Myers
III. Allegro assai
In the spring of 1786, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was in Vienna, busy preparing for the premiere of his new opera, Le Nozze di Figaro. Never one to take a break, he also managed during this period to complete a second comic opera (a Singspiel called Der Schauspieldirektor) and three piano concerti. At the time, Mozart was making most of his money from performing, rather than composing, and these concerti (numbers 22-24) were likely premiered on a series of concerts he presented in Vienna during the spring of 1786. It would appear that Mozart intended these pieces solely for his own performance, and they all remained unpublished at the time of his death. While each of the three has since become a regular fixture in the classical canon, the second of these, No. 23 in A major, stands out as one of the composer’s most intimate and expressive works.
By omitting trumpets and timpani and replacing oboes with clarinets, Mozart created a work with an unusually dark, mellow tone compared to contemporary orchestral pieces. These three concerti were the first of Mozart’s piano concerti to include clarinets in the orchestra, and the instrument was new enough that Mozart felt obligated to include a note allowing them to be replaced by a violin or viola should an orchestra not have any available. As with the composer’s other “late” works (Wolfgang had reached the ripe old age of 30!), the winds play a much more significant role than was usual in pieces of the time. The soloistic nature of the orchestral parts and the overall gentle mood of the piece results in a concerto with the kind of intimacy that one normally finds only in chamber music.
The concerto’s first movement is written in traditional sonata form. As in many classical concerti, we are introduced to the music in a double exposition: the thematic material is first presented by the orchestra and then restated by the soloist. The key of A major seems to have had a calming effect on Mozart (think of his Clarinet Quintet and Clarinet Concerto), and this is reflected in the graceful lyricism of the concerto’s opening themes.
The second movement holds a special place in Mozart’s output. The only piece he ever wrote in F#-minor, this movement also marks the last time that he would write a minor-key slow movement as part of an instrumental piece. Structured in a simple A-B-A form, the movement presents some of the most poignant and pensive music Mozart would ever compose. The profoundly expressive wind writing and the interplay between the soloist and orchestra bring to mind the intimacy of chamber music more than the grandeur of orchestral concerti.
Not content to leave us in a pensive mood, the final movement is a rondo that puts Mozart’s mercurial wit and humor on full display. Themes are tossed back and forth between the soloist and orchestra as they chase each other through unexpected key changes until we’re finally back in A major and the work races to a playful conclusion.
Copyright © 2014 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.
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