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Mozart Piano Concerto no.20, K466

I recently had the good fortune to perform Mozart's Piano Concerto in D minor, no.20, K466. The concert was held at G Live, the new concert hall in Guildford, and was a celebration of Cranleigh School's commitment to the performing arts, and a farewell to Headmaster Guy Waller, who retires this term.

Here are my programme notes:






Allegro assai


Mozart’s Piano Concerto #20 in D minor is considered to be one of the greatest concertos in the repertoire, a masterpiece of form and structure, and a work of such drama and beauty that it has retained popularity for over two hundred years. Finished on 10th February 1785, and premiered the following evening, this darkest of concertos was an extraordinary departure for Mozart, anticipating the Romantic drama of Beethoven. Yet this is not Beethoven, and it would be misguided to play this piece as if it were. Whilst there is emotional passion, the sense of Classical elegance and restraint that governs it serves only to intensify the drama. It is no coincidence that Beethoven so admired this work that it was one of the few written by other composers that he deigned to perform, and indeed endowed with cadenzas that are possibly the finest in existence.

The key of D minor is significant in Mozart’s output. He uses it infrequently, particularly in instrumental works, and almost always with associations of dark foreboding, of threatening fate, and to express oppression, struggle, conflict, danger and damnation. The most obvious examples are in Don Giovanni and in the Requiem but it could be argued that in all his output, it receives its fullest expression in this concerto. In no other instrumental work does Mozart create such a range of contrast between movements, and also between different sections of the same movement, and it stands as one of his greatest achievements.

No longer content to provide an adoring public with easily understood virtuosic perfection, Mozart challenges accepted ideals, and, in a brilliant statement of his genius, it is the very idea of challenging authority that governs the structure. In a bold move, Mozart begins the concerto with a deeply unsettling ‘non-theme’ in the orchestra; Alfred Einstein even referring to this as ‘an anonymous threatening power’; it is material that the soloist never plays. When the piano enters, it is with entirely new material that the orchestra never plays, and thus begins a sense of conflict between orchestra and soloist that pervades the entire work. It is magnified by a sense of oppression created by a structure that is so tightly wrought it allows no escape or opportunity for embellishment. Whilst the orchestra allows the soloist to challenge, to coax it toward other themes, and even to assume a degree of authority, at the very moment the soloist might win over the orchestra, it is crushed swiftly and emphatically; its brave original theme and associated aspirations never to return. Into this crucible, Beethoven throws a cadenza of white-hot intensity, maintaining the tightly wrought structure, summarizing Mozart’s themes rather than relying on empty virtuosity, and, in a masterstroke, daring to re-state the original piano solo theme in a final gesture of defiance. The orchestral tutti that follows breaks the cycle of thematic order and closes the first movement in a deeply unsettling manner.

There follows a Romance of such simple beauty that it is as if time stands still, and yet all is not well in Paradise. The central section is a stormy contrast, as unexpected as it is original, but ultimately giving way to a reprise of the initial theme that is heavenly in its tranquillity. The solo piano then initiates the drama in the third movement, allegro assai; a Rondo of virtuosic brilliance in which the soloist and orchestra vie for supremacy for the majority of the movement, before Beethoven once more brings the drama to boiling point in another devilish cadenza. Thereafter, the soloist seems simply to acquiesce to the orchestra’s authority in the final pages, accompanying the now good-humoured orchestra, complete with ‘toy’ trumpets, and allowing the work to finish in the major key.

And yet we are left with questions. Is this ending purely a formality serving to appease the Classical etiquette of the time, or is there dramatic narrative in this ending? Is it ‘a victory of serenity over the tumultuous anxiety of earlier moments’, as Girdlestone suggests, or is it merely a distraction? Has the struggle truly been resolved? These questions, the sense of conflict and resolution, of struggle and triumph, and of a dramatic narrative that poses as many questions as it answers once again anticipate what were to become Beethovian traits.

Daniel Barenboim writes that ‘music does not need interpretation. It needs observation of the score, control of its physical realisation, and a musician’s capacity to become one with the work of another’.

Simple and profound, and thus began eight months of almost total immersion. Studying the score, memorizing it, and listening to dozens of different recordings embracing everything from period-instrument performances on fortepianos to outstanding interpretations by little-known pianists. Ivan Moravec’s still stands out. I came across brilliant recordings (Barenboim, Curzon) as well as rather disappointing ones by some of the world’s greatest pianists. Particular thanks to Peter Longshaw for access to, and many helpful conversations about, his wonderful collection of different recordings. I have had lessons on the work from Michael Dussek, my teacher at the Royal Academy of Music, and from the world-renowned Joan Havill. I have practised it on a beautifully restored 1789 square piano (in order to understand Mozart’s sound world better) and I have heard Murray Perahia perform it with a ninety year-old Sir Neville Marriner conducting, live at the Royal Festival Hall. I have also read widely on the work, its context, musical analysis and interpretation, and all the while I have practised, practised, practised, latterly on two pianos with my great friend Jan Newman.

The hours of practice open up the possibilities, the different paths and different sound worlds, and the potential to be spontaneous in performance; a spontaneity gained only by total control and understanding. And with each day that passes, a more informed sense of Mozart’s genius, and a greater feeling of privilege in knowing what it takes to be able to perform this work. But also, a heightened sense of responsibility that comes from realising what can go wrong, and from accepting that no matter how much one understands the work, rehearsal time with the orchestra is limited to one run-through on the day! In an enlightening illustration of both the fashion in which Mozart worked, and of how good a pianist he must have been, Mozart’s father Leopold writes that his son did not even have time to rehearse the last movement with the orchestra for the first performance, as he was too busy supervising the copyist writing out the orchestral parts!

Perhaps my favourite moment in the preparation of this extraordinary work was when Isla, my four year-old daughter, turned to me and said:

‘You play this one, don’t you Daddy?’

as yet another recording emerged from the stereo in the living room.


I am now officially a 'Steinway Artist'...!

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