Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K.488

        Mozart is largely responsible for the creation of the “modern” piano concerto.  He wrote them primarily for himself to support his career as a performer.  His spending habits consistently placed him in financial difficulties, and he usually desperately needed to concertize.  Only his operas exceed his piano concertos in musical genius, and historical significance.  He composed some twenty-three of them, starting about 1767.  No other genre of his is so consistently high in quality and maturity.  K.488 was written in March of 1786, along with what many consider to be his best, K.491—so typical of Mozart to toss off two masterpieces in short order!

        While the concerto—employing a variety of solo instruments, or groups of solo instruments—had been a staple of concerts for over a hundred years by Mozart’s time, it was the advent of the piano by the late eighteenth century that enabled the genre to reach its highest expressive possibilities.  Only the sonority and tonal weight of the piano really provides for an equal partner to the orchestra, and thus a foundation for the dramatic interplay between solo and accompaniment that is basic to the genre.   Mozart’s contribution, other than his consummate musical genius, of course, was to “beef up” the rôle of the orchestra from one of simple accompaniment to that of co-protagonist in the musical drama.  He also established a clear succession of sections in the form of the first movement (there are almost always three movements in a concerto, as opposed to generally four in a symphony).  

        The various sections feature one or the other of the orchestra and soloist, and simultaneously provide for a pleasing series of melodies, key areas, and dramatic interplay between the performers.   Those who find pleasure in keeping track of the “progress” through the movement may wish to note at least six clear sections in the first movement.    The second movements of Mozart’s concertos vary considerably in their structures and moods.   The main thing, I believe, to listen for in this second movement is simply the tragic hopelessness that Mozart creates in his rare use of the key of F sharp minor—he was quite careful and deliberate in his key choices.   That mood is cheerfully swept away by the infectious gaiety of the last movement.  It’s a rondo in its form, which simply means that the listener can easily follow the main theme as it alternates with some attractive contrasting sections.

         The great music scholar, Alfred Einstein once opined that Mozart’s piano concertos lift the listener to a higher level, and so think I.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© William E. Runyan