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Hyperion Records

CDA67919 - Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos 17 & 27
Front photograph of Angela Hewitt by Bernd Eberle

Recording details: July 2011
Das Kulturzentrum Grand Hotel, Dobbiaco, Italy
Produced by Ludger Böckenhoff
Engineered by Stephan Reh
Release date: May 2013
Total duration: 59 minutes 19 seconds


'The Andante of K453 evokes the finest in Hewitt, its trajectory exposed through pathos and proud gesture, the pauses treated as silences to generate expectancy for daring harmonic modulations. That's model musicianship' (Gramophone)

'The sparkling G major Concerto K453, where Hewitt displays her pianistic talents to full advantage. Particularly enjoyable are the concluding variations … in which she seems completely at one with the alert playing of the Mantua Chamber Orchestra under Hannu Lintu' (BBC Music Magazine)

'The sound is wonderfully clean and focused, with an ideal balance between Hewitt's customary Fazioli piano and the orchestra … [K453 finale] Here Lintu starts the movement with light-footed grace, using minimal vibrato on the strings, Hewitt taking her cue with playing of elegance and buoyancy … the attention to musical contrast and stylistic integrity is similar throughout. Hewitt's own illuminating notes in the booklet are a bonus, making this a Mozart release to cherish' (The Daily Telegraph)

'The success of her performances of K595 and the G major, K453, rests in part on Hewitt's feeling for Mozart's remarkable harmonic and tonal range in both works … Mozart gives us plenty more surprises … Hewitt relishes these, as if freshly exploring and delighting in them … these characteristics of intelligent delight in the music also mark Hewitt's performance of the G major Concerto … it is brilliantly done, and this is a brilliant performance all round' (International Record Review)

'Hewitt draws great delicacy from her Fazioli piano … strongly recommended' (Liverpool Daily Post)

'Angela Hewitt’s recording is perfection itself—not just in how precisely she places each and every note, but in how she and the orchestra sound as if they are breathing and working as one' (Musical Toronto, Canada)

Piano Concertos Nos 17 & 27
Allegro  [12'21]
Andante  [9'49]
Allegro  [13'23]
Larghetto  [6'01]
Allegro  [9'45]

Angela Hewitt turns to two of Mozart’s greatest and most popular concertos for her latest album. Together with her frequent collaborators, the Orchestra da Camera di Mantova and brilliant Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu, she presents these works in performances which are both elegantly stylish and profoundly felt. This release is completed by a personal reflection on the music by Hewitt herself in the accompanying booklet.

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By the time 1781 came along, the twenty-five-year-old Mozart was thoroughly fed up with Salzburg and his employer, Archbishop Colloredo. He needed to get out of the provincial town for good. After his first attempt at resigning his post of court organist and concertmaster was refused, he was finally kicked out (literally, by the Archbishop’s chamberlain Count Arco) in June of that year. Freedom was exactly what he wanted, and Vienna was the place for it.

By the summer of the following year two major events had taken place: the very successful premiere in Vienna of his new opera, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and his marriage to Constanze Weber at St Stephen’s Cathedral. Their first son was born in June 1783, and soon after Wolfgang made the trip back to Salzburg in order to introduce Constanze to his father and sister (where they received a cordial but tense greeting), leaving the newborn at home. During their absence, the child died.

The Mozart household was never run very efficiently, even if Mozart wrote that his wife ‘understands housekeeping and has the kindest heart in the world’. Constanze was a gifted singer (the beautiful ‘Christe eleison’ in the Mass in C minor of 1783 was first sung by her) and had a passion for fugues, but money was always a problem. In February 1784, Mozart began to keep two notebooks: one for expenses, one for a list of his compositions. Entries in the latter were meticulously carried out until the very end of his life. The former didn’t do so well: for the first year Wolfgang noted the money taken in from his concerts and lessons and kept track of expenses, even including one kreutzer for a bunch of flowers. After that he handed it over to Constanze, but her interest in it was short-lived. The same notebook was also used at some point for Mozart’s English lessons.

In the morning Mozart taught his pupils; in the evening he often had a concert. Between the end of February and the beginning of April 1784, he gave something like 22 concerts in 38 days. He was very proud of the fact that he had 174 subscribers to his own series—thirty more than two of his rivals put together. The Irish tenor Michael Kelley (or ‘Ochelley’ as Mozart called him) first heard him play at that time, and left us the following description: ‘His feeling, the rapidity of his fingers, the great execution and strength of his left hand, particularly, and the apparent inspiration of his modulations, astounded me … He was kind-hearted, and always ready to oblige, but so very particular when he played, that if the slightest noise were made, he instantly left off.’

All these concerts meant that Mozart had to present something new at each one—at least when they were his own promotions, and when he wasn’t improvising. That goes some way to explain how, in 1784 alone, he miraculously tossed off six new piano concertos, along with the great C minor Piano Sonata K457, the D major Sonata for two pianos K448, and four major chamber works, including the stunning Quintet for piano and winds, K452. He composed in his head—not at the piano—and writing the work down was usually the very last thing he did. As far as the piano concertos were concerned, he guarded his manuscript copies with his life—only letting them out of his possession to show his father. It seems illegal copying is not just a twenty-first-century problem but was a major issue for Mozart, his work being stolen and copied with no revenue going to him. On his travels he would take with him only the orchestral parts to the concertos, preferring to carry the solo part around in his head.

It has generally been thought that the Piano Concerto No 17 in G major K453 was first played by one of Mozart’s students, eighteen-year-old Barbara Ployer, at a concert in her father’s home in the suburbs of Vienna on 13 June 1784. But in 2006 the Austrian musicologist Michael Lorenz stated a contrary view: that it was most unlikely that Mozart waited two months for a new composition to be performed, and that he probably did so himself on 29 April, just over two weeks after its completion. That was the occasion of a concert in which he also played his new Sonata for piano and violin K454, with one of his favourite interpreters, Regina Strinasacchi of Mantova. Either way, Barbara Ployer (‘Babette’, as she was called) was the rightful dedicatee, and this was the second concerto that Mozart wrote for her, after No 14 in E flat major, K449.

Two things are noticeable right from the outset: the first violins, unusually, begin the Allegro alone with a march-like figure commonly used by Mozart but which is infused in this instance with elegance and grace. Everything is innocent until the first note of bar four which lands on an F natural (not what one expects in G major), adding some piquancy to the otherwise carefree opening. Just before the pleading second theme appears, in which that F natural makes a second appearance, a jumpy bassoon introduces a motif which is used first as a filler but later on becomes more important. After a surprise fall into E flat major, the music recovers its serenity before handing over to the soloist.

There is a wealth of material in this first movement, including a theme introduced by the piano in which the left hand sounds like a pair of French horns. We also hear many instances of the astounding modulations that Kelley speaks of, the most surprising of which comes at the beginning of the development section when we suddenly find ourselves in B flat major at the start of a passage where arpeggios in the piano embellish those in the woodwinds. Whereas in the other concerto dedicated to Babette Ployer, K449, the winds were said by Mozart to be optional, in this concerto they are major characters in the drama. The short bridge to the recapitulation is masterful: after another pleading section beginning in C minor where the sighs become more insistent, a brief upward scale in the piano, some woodwind chords, and an upbeat in the first violins, and there we are, back at the beginning. From tears to sunny radiance in a matter of seconds. The cadenza is Mozart’s own; it ends quietly, which is unusual in a first movement. The cellos and basses sneak in, followed by the upper strings, with a piercingly poignant G sharp in the first violins clashing with the pedal G.

More wonders await us in the second movement. ‘Andante and not Adagio’, wrote Mozart in a letter to his sister. The phrase lengths of the opening orchestral tutti are irregular: 5, 6, 7, 6, 5. We are further unsettled by the key: is it in G major (where the first cadence is) or C major? When the solo oboe enters in the sixth bar, after the first of many dramatic pauses in this movement, we know the answer (C major). The pianist is the soprano in this scene from an opera seria, with wide leaps typical of Mozart’s vocal writing. After each pause we are flung into another key, way off the path. Throughout the movement oboe, flute and bassoon engage in loving dialogue, and the moment when the piano joins them in thirds is very special. Another cadenza by Mozart leads us back to the main theme presented in the winds, but with a twist—taking us to F major for the soloist’s final utterance.

Despite our being so familiar with this music, it is important to imagine what an impact it must have had on first hearing. Even Clara Schumann didn’t get to know the G major Concerto until she was over forty years old, and then only because Brahms introduced it to her. She found this slow movement particularly affecting and said it reduced her to tears. In a letter to him dated 5 February 1861 she bemoaned the fact that the public had no idea of the riches within, and the joy it brought to those who appreciated its splendours.

If we go back to that household expense notebook of Mozart’s, we see that on 27 May 1784 he bought a starling for 34 kreutzers (during his lifetime he also owned a dog, a horse and a canary). The bird promptly picked up the theme of the last movement of this concerto, although it had a mind of its own, adding a pause and sharpening one note, as Mozart notated below the notebook entry, along with the words ‘Das war schön!’. The bird was a member of the Mozart household for three years, and on its death was buried with full honours in the garden, with Mozart even writing a poem written in its memory.

This is a perfect theme for a set of variations. That’s just what Mozart wrote, for the first time in a piano concerto (the second and last time was in his C minor concerto, K491). The style is that of a French contredanse with two eight-bar phrases, each repeated. Stated first by the violins and flute, it is then taken over by the piano in an embellished, more harmonically daring version. The second variation has triplets in the piano accompanying the tune in the winds, and on the repeat taking it over along with the strings. Things get busier in the third variation, again giving the winds prominence, and demanding some nimble work from the pianist’s left hand. We are plunged into the minor key for the fourth variation, in which the orchestra wanders around in the dark. The piano answers with more of those big leaps we had in the slow movement. But no sooner has darkness come than it is dispelled with a fortissimo variation back in the major key in which the piano answers as though nothing has happened at all. Then what do we have? A finale marked Presto. If the second movement came from opera seria, this is straight out of an opera buffa. Horns are given a humorous role, the pianist imitates the tremolos of the orchestra, and the momentum builds. The bird-like tune makes its final appearance and the whole thing ends with the orchestra getting the last laugh!

If Mozart would not have waited two months to perform a new piano concerto in 1784, he certainly did in 1791. The Piano Concerto No 27 in B flat major K595, his last, was entered into the notebook on 5 January 1791 but not presented to the public until 4 March—and then only at a private benefit concert for the clarinetist Joseph Beer. Why this difference?

As of 1788 Mozart no longer organized concerts of his own. Perhaps he had outgrown his audience just as he had outgrown Salzburg. The music publisher Hoffmeister advised him to write compositions that would be more popular and not so difficult, otherwise he couldn’t continue to publish them—to which Mozart’s reply was: ‘Then I can make no more by my pen, and I had better starve, and go to destruction at once.’ His opera Così fan tutte was premiered in 1790, but only given a few performances before the Emperor’s death put an end to that. To make things worse Constanze was often ill and he was left with only two pupils. The new Emperor, Leopold II, wasn’t at all interested in music, and treated Mozart with contempt.

At the beginning of 1791, however, things were much brighter and Mozart began what was to be an amazing year of productivity. Besides the piano concerto, he wrote a large number of dances for the Vienna ball season, pieces for mechanical organ and glass harmonica, a string quintet, the operas La clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte, the Clarinet Concerto, Ave verum corpus, and finally the Requiem. Nothing suggested that this year would be his last. True, in the spring he suffered from severe headaches and toothache, but even his last surviving letter to his wife in mid-October was upbeat in tone. Still, the mood of this final piano concerto is far removed from that of the G major, written seven years previously.

In K453 the first violins begin alone. In K595 all the other strings begin with a pulsating, rocking accompaniment. The firsts then enter with a sweetly sighing melody that comes in three parts, each time surprisingly closing in the tonic, and twice interrupted by that march-like motif (as we have in K453) in the winds. Even if there are moments of high spirits in this movement, they are few, and most of it is shot through with a great deal of melancholy. A descending scale theme comes first in major mode, but then is repeated in a tortured, flat-ridden version. The development section begins with the piano stating the theme in the most remote key possible—B minor—then going through C major on its way to E flat minor. The daring modulations, even for Mozart, continue in a passage where the counterpoint between piano and winds reaches a climax. In the bridge to the cadenza (Mozart’s own), which is usually the domain of the orchestra, the piano participates, adding its own tender, bittersweet commentary.

Perhaps because of the constant harmonic shifts in this opening movement, Mozart made the following Larghetto almost drastically simple in that regard. The descending scale makes another appearance, but is at peace with itself. The right hand as soloist soars and floats above the rest, with a longing and poignancy that is anything but naïve. Marked alla breve, I feel this movement, as in Baroque music, should not be taken too slowly, due to the relatively simple harmonic structure.

The last movement could be (and frequently is) played in the same spirit as many of Mozart’s finales. I feel this would be a mistake. True, the theme, on first acquaintance, looks cheery enough, but there is much more behind it as well as the brilliant passagework that comes later. Mozart loved to dance—indeed ‘Ochelley’ wrote that Constanze said her husband really preferred the art of dance to that of music—and this movement has to do just that. There is one part in it that always has me in tears and gives me the shivers: the moment in which the orchestra rejoins the soloist after the final cadenza, during the last statement of the theme. It is wondrous. We know, of course, that Mozart died eleven months after writing this. He would have been oblivious. But did he somehow sense this already? One wonders. The next composition entered in his notebook, only nine days later, was a song entitled Sehnsucht nach dem Frühlinge, the words of which are:

Come, sweet May, and turn
The trees green again,
And make the little violets
Bloom for me by the brook!

The music is almost the same. Mozart was looking forward to what ended up being his last spring. In this the last of his great piano concertos, he left us the most powerful message of all.

Angela Hewitt © 2013

Other albums in this series
'Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos 6, 8 & 9' (CDA67840)
Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos 6, 8 & 9
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67840 
'Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos 22 & 24' (CDA68049)
Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos 22 & 24
Buy by post £7.88 CDA68049  Best of 2014   Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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