"Mozart's" First Four Piano Concerti: Why the Heck Not?

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Leopold, Wolfgang and Nannerl on stage by Delafosse, 1764
Listen up: If you have limited time to listen to Mozart, or don’t have to teach a class on Mozart’s piano concerti or something, like I do, you don’t have time for these works. Go listen to Cosi fan Tutte or something. Go on, git! I don’t have all day.

Alright, everybody else-are those bozos gone? Good. Today we’re talking about the four concertos Mozart wrote at the age of eleven, based on pre-existing pieces, primarily by the Parisian Roccoco school, guys like Schobert and Eckard. These pieces aren’t even included in Cuthbert Girdlestone’s (what a name! Sounds like a character from Arthur Conan Doyle…I think I’ll change my name to his!) classic study of the Mozart piano concerti. He calls the 5th concerto the first. Which is fine. But either I’m entering my second childhood (not a likely possibility, you!) or the pieces are surprisingly viable. It helps to have a record of them played and conducted by Daniel Barenboim, who, make no bones about it, plays the pieces in a wonderfully warm, playful, and wholly romantic manner. I don’t understand critics of Barenboim’s Mozart, and I’ve met a lot of them. But on the other hand, I’ve met a lot of guys who prefer Artur Rubinstein’s piano playing to that of Vladimir Horowitz. To me this is incomprehensible, I’ll just never get it.

Anyway, here’s the Gibbons Maxim: All Music Should Be Played Romantically.

No, I am not appending a caveat. And if you squeal, “What about Bach?” I’ll majestically intone, “Especially Bach!”

Alright, I concede it’s largely a matter of taste and temperament. If Thomas Beecham puts cymbals and harp in Messiah, I’ll laugh along with the rest of you. And de Pachman’s Chopin (I’ve heard it) is gross and tasteless, not charming. And Huneker’s “analysis” of Chopin is an embarrassment. Let him go get drunk with Dvorak. Was that him? Here are some points about the four Mozart concerti which have been conspicuous by their absence in this essay:

1. Formally, they are totally conventional fast-slow-fast affairs with rudimentary binary and song forms with episodes instead of developments, with the exception of the first mvt. of the D major, which is actually interesting, and it is further interesting that Wolfy only provided a cadenza for this piece, clearly the best of the four.

2. The orchestration is too classy to be labeled, or libeled, “perfunctory”. But don’t get in a tizzy about it, we’re not gonna “alert the media”. If you don’t appreciate Mozart’s orchestration, just listen to some of his contemporaries. (excepting Haydn).

3. The left hand of the pianist is constantly playing orchestral style music, not piano style music, except where it is playing ubiquitous alberti basses…which is most of the time, come to think of it. When the piano doubles the bass, it’s actually kind of a fun texture on the piano, but on a harpsichord or fortepiano it’d be a dull and conventional texture. And is it lese majestie to criticize some of the left hand writing in Mozart’s “real” concerti?

4. The right hand plays an awful lot of arpeggios and scales. But if you inflect this prefabricated material like Barenboim does, it is indeed beautiful. 

5. Cheerful and elegant, the melodic writing delights.

6. The most ambitious slow movement, the F-major movement of the 2nd concerto (the B-flat) fails. It tries to have beautiful suspensions and real gravity but is just boring. The piano plays too many triplets, and doesn’t even have a chance for rubato or nuance much.

7. These pieces aren’t particularly worse than Mozart’s concerti 6-8. 5 is much better than these, but 6-8? These (1-4) concerti are pithier and no more superficial than 6-8. The 7th is a disappointment: with 3 keyboards one might think Mozart would get more, not less, but less he gets.

8. The slow movement of No. 4 is in g minor. Relax! Geezus, I can’t take you anywhere! It’s not real Mozart g minor.

9. The fine scholar William Kinderman says in his book, “Mozart’s Piano Music” that Mozart merely adapted pre-existing sonatas and added orchestral ritornelli. But can this be totally true? There are definitely passages in the piano part that sure don’t feel sonata-like; that seem to depend on the interaction of piano and orchestra. I at least can’t imagine simply playing the piano parts as sonatas. I’m way too lazy to look up the original sources, so I hereby commission you, reader, to spend hours in the library doing so. Let me know what you find out.