Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466

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        Mozart is largely responsible for the creation of the modern piano concerto, composing them primarily for himself to support his career as a performer.  His spending habits consistently placed him in financial difficulties, and since he usually desperately needed to concertize, concertos were a natural solution.  He composed about two dozen of them, starting about 1767.  Although his operas exceed his piano concertos in musical genius, and historical significance, no other genre of his is so consistently high in quality and maturity. 

        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.  But, history aside, the relevant fact is that the piano concerto was the medium of the composer’s strongest and most personal expression—they all manifestly spring directly from his deepest feelings.  He wrote most them for himself, to support his family—as he was often penurious, the need was frequent.   His compositional facility in the genre is well known—he often performed them at the première with no written out solo part, with the ink on the orchestral parts hardly dry.

        This concerto is one of only two that are in minor keys (this being the first) and was composed in 1785 during a remarkable period during which he wrote eleven piano concertos in two years!  This work is a dark and wondrous one, and is surely among those compositions that later inspired commentators to speak of Mozart’s “romanticism.”  Labels are tricky, but it’s clear that the work’s chiaroscuro nature plays a significant rôle in that perception.  Moreover, two of his greatest works, The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni would appear during the next two years, and their mastery and unparallel sense of drama are cut from the same cloth as this concerto.   It seems to me that especially the shadowy profundity of Don Giovanni is presaged here.

        The first movement, as usual, is a meaty one.  The syncopated, pulsing strings set a mood right out of Italian opera, setting the stage for  the solo part as a melancholy rumination that even in the second idea—usual brighter in mood—still seems a bit somber.  After the piano cadenza, the movement rather just fades away.   The following slow movement is a “romanza,” a term that Mozart used only a few times. Here in the second movement, the ambiguity of the term seems clearer in Mozart’s mind, for here we encounter musical beauty and lyricism at the fullness of the composer’s powers.  The dominating mood and idea are interrupted twice for the necessary contrast:  the first is couched in the same lyrical tone as the main idea.  But after a return of the latter, the second contrasting section is a heavy weight diversion of menacing, tumultuous thoughts far removed from the world of tranquility of the beginning.  It’s in the key of G minor—a special key for the composer, and one that he consistently reserved for his most serioso moments, so be warned.  It’s a substantial exploration of an alternative world from that of the first, but finally a brief modulation returns us home, ending quietly.

        The last movement opens vigorously, with a “rocketing” rising arpeggio as the identifier, and its constant return guides us through this serious, driving affair.  To be sure, there are some contrasting lighter moments, but they don’t detain us long in this catapulting, serious drive to the end.   The last statement of the main idea punches right into the piano cadenza.   And then . . . a happy little tune surprisingly quickly takes us to the finish line, banishing all of the “storm and stress” through which Mozart has taken us.  After all is said and done, it’s easy to see why Beethoven admired and performed this composition.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan