W. A. Mozart: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 24 in C minor, K. 491
Wilhelm Kempff (piano)
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra. Conductor: Ferdinand Leitner
Recorded in July 1995. Deutsche Grammophon # 39699
In our world of constantly-changing technology – wider screens, sharper images, more mobiles, more deafening sound, when an unknown popstar can attract thousands of young people and upset the traffic flow of an entire city – we may well echo “Stop the world, I want to get off!” Or, faced with a certain impossibility of doing this, take refuge in those classical works, so beautifully crafted within their own forms and conventions, that their value becomes timeless. For instance, a portrait by Gainsborough, a piece of fine porcelain – or a musical composition by Mozart. Within the comparative simplicity of the classical forms of his time (1756-1791), his works have lovely melodies, wonderful balance in the phrases and the way they lead from one to another, impeccable finishing, delicacy and sensitivity…… but at the same time they are richly inventive and even downright cheeky, in the way he suddenly switches moods, or sets words outside their usual context.
So, rather than try and get off the world, play this CD, and let it carry you back to the classical conventions of harmony and beauty….
Mozart was the second child of Leopold Mozart, an accomplished violinist and court musician in Salzburg, Austria. Mozart’s elder sister was a precocious and talented musician, but nothing could rival the astonishing abilities of Johannes Cristosomus Wolfgang Amadeus. Their father, anxious to show the extraordinary talents of his children, took them on repeated journeys throughout Europe, where they played before the nobility and were received by kings and princes. Travel then was by stagecoach, lodgings on the road uncertain, and the children fell often and seriously ill, in an age when medical science was rudimentary. In spite of this, Mozart’s talent continued to develop, and he began to compose a great variety of different music, showing the ability to retain it in his mind while travelling or doing something else, writing it down later. Their travels, while bringing fame and income, also served to acquaint Mozart with all styles of music, and bring him into contact with contemporary musicians.
In 1781, Mozart left the employ of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, and took up residence in Vienna. He married Constanze Weber, and they had seven children, only two of whom survived infancy (and these left no heirs). After years of initial success in Vienna, Mozart often felt financial hardship, exacerbated by his spending habits. Always a prolific composer, he left over 600 compositions – symphonies, operas, concertos, sonatas, serenades, divertimentos, masses. He died of a feverish illness at the tragically early age of 35.
For those who have seen it, it is difficult to forget the powerful scenes of the film Amadeus, depicting the last years of Mozart’s life. It is not biography however, and was not meant to be; most of the scenes of his contact with Salieri spring from imagination rather than recorded evidence. On top of this, characterization of Mozart as socially insensitive and rather dissolute is probably unjust. However, listen to one speech of Salieri (a respected court musician) on seeing original scores of Mozart’s: “….he had simply written down music which was already finished in his head, as if he were just taking dictation. And music…..finished as no music is ever finished…. displace one note, and there would be diminishment; displace one phrase, and the structure would fall…… it was clear to me…that here was the very voice of God……I was staring through the cage of those ridiculous ink strokes at an absolute beauty…”
His Piano Concertos and this CD
In Mozart’s long composing career – from age 5 to age 35 – he wrote 27 Concertos for piano and orchestra, the last 17 in Vienna, during the last 10 years of his life. The earliest are in the baroque style, most are what we term classical, while in the last ones, the original use of piano and orchestral effects already foreshadows Beethoven – drama and heroics. In Vienna, where Mozart worked as a free-lance composer and musician (without a wealthy patron) he wrote Concertos for piano and orchestra to present at paid concerts, with himself at the piano. This CD has one early Concerto, and three late ones, numbers 8, 23, 24 and 27.
In any catalogue of classical recordings, there are dozens of versions of Mozart’s piano concertos, by different pianists and orchestras. I have certainly not listened to them all to pick the best, even if that were possible, but this recording of No. 24 attracted me because I think it is stylistically perfect. Wilhelm Kempff’s piano is light, transparent, beautifully phrased. No exaggerated emotions, and just the right amount of space. And apart from the apparent simplicity, this is not at all easy to achieve, because you are looking for perfection of evenness, of touch and of phrasing. Some pianists, in fact, regard playing Mozart as their greatest challenge, because it has to be so clean and controlled. The orchestra for Concerto No.24 is quite full for the times – apart from the strings, we have flutes, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, as well as horns and trumpets. I don’t find them always perfectly together with the pianist, but the overall result is just fine.
The first Movement Allegro (in three-time) has a sombre orchestral opening, discontented like dark clouds on the horizon; but when the piano comes in, it doesn’t combat the mood, but with a kind of divine simplicity places itself above all that. Then the two intertwine, the piano capturing some of the mood of the orchestra, while a second theme is developed. In the middle, it seems as if the piano has dissipated some of the gloom of the orchestra, and Kempff’s playing has a wonderful transparency and precision. But this does not prevail and, helped by the minor key, the dark mood prevails to the end.
The second Movement Larghetto (returning to 4/4) starts off with a wonderfully simple statement from the piano. This is answered by the orchestra, and a second theme introduced. Using different settings of the instruments, the themes are developed, but then we come back to the original, while the whole is in a mood of quiet contemplation.
The third Movement Allegretto is not fast, but reveals Mozart returning to light and cheeky themes, while keeping well within the bounds of propriety. The second theme even appears gently derisive, but is played so properly that one can well imagine the local nobility being charmed with it. These themes are developed, repeated in different guises, and restated, until we come to a rather sudden conclusion.
We can take delight in the classical craftsmanship both of the composition and the playing, so…..