Concerto No. 14 in E flat, K. 449 for piano and string quartet
September 23, 2018: Michael Brown, solo piano; Arnaud Sussmann, violin; Emily Smith, violin; Matt Lipman, viola; Nick Canellakis, cello; David J. Grossman, bass
The E-flat major Concerto—completed on February 9, 1784, but probably begun in 1782 or ’83—was the first of Mozart’s so-called “great” concertos and the first work he entered in his own catalog of works. Something about the work’s significance must have triggered the idea that he needed to maintain a record of his compositions, a practice he kept up until a few weeks before he died. He composed the E-flat Concerto for Barbara (Babette) Ployer, a fine pianist who studied with Mozart and whose talents he greatly appreciated. It was for her that he also wrote his Piano Concerto in G major, K. 453, and the “Grand” Sonata for two pianos in D major. Her father, Gottfried Ignaz von Ployer, agent of the Salzburg court in Vienna, frequently presented evenings of music and had helped to pave the composer’s way in Viennese society.
By refraining from publishing the E-flat Concerto during his lifetime, Mozart granted Babette almost exclusive rights to the work. He did, however, play it himself on his benefit concert in March 1784, where “it won extraordinary applause,” as he reported to his father, and he did send a copy back to Salzburg for his sister Nannerl to perform. The work’s modest proportions in comparison with subsequent “grander” concertos later prompted Mozart to call it “a concerto in an entirely different style and written more for a small than a large orchestra.” As he had for the three piano concertos that immediately precede this work, Mozart suggested that the E-flat Concerto might be played “a quattro”—that is with string quartet accompaniment rather than full orchestra, in which version it works extremely well. History has tended to underrate this Concerto, but its many imaginative features make the work deserving of more frequent performance.
The E-flat Concerto is remarkable for the earnestness of its first two movements. The tonal ambiguity between E-flat major and its relative minor in the restless first movement have even resulted in the work’s being labeled in C minor on occasion. In characteristic fashion Mozart presents a plethora of ideas in both his first and second key areas. In the first group an agitated theme in C minor does not reappear until near the end of the movement. Other striking uses of C minor occur in the recapitulation and in Mozart’s own cadenza for the movement.
The slow movement presents an interesting mix of sonata and rondo elements in a procession of intimately elegant ideas and rich modulations. The marked avoidance of cadences and of the signposts of traditional form make this a “quietly revolutionary” movement—a precursor to Schubert perhaps—and add to the tally of this Concerto’s noteworthy features.
The finale combines contrapuntal style and comic opera elements with great success, all the while presenting an original sonata-rondo form. Mozart’s distinctive main theme never returns exactly the same way. The second episode’s use of C minor makes a connection with the first movement as does the subsequent fugal version of the main theme in that key. Mozart’s coda in merry 6/8 meter introduces further variation both of the main theme and of one of the later themes—a witty conclusion to an inspired Concerto.
© Jane Vial Jaffe