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Piano Concerto No 17 in G major, K453
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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!

from notes by Angela Hewitt © 2013

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