BEAUTY of music | Mozart Piano Concerto No. 25
APA Artistic Administrator Milner Fuller provides a listening guide for Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25, K. 503, which will be featured in Henry Kramer's 2017 American Pianists Awards Premiere Series performance on Sunday September 25.
September 22 Update: notes from Henry Kramer
As a listener, I am so glad we get to hear a mature Mozart Piano Concerto this season before we hear four of Beethoven’s. Henry Kramer will perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503, with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra on September 25 as part of his Premiere Series recital.
If Haydn is the “father of the symphony,” Mozart should be considered the father of the classical piano concerto. Mozart wrote 23 original piano concerti (four of the twenty-seven numbered works were arrangements of other composers’ solo piano works), and beginning with K. 449 (No. 14) in March of 1784, his mature concerti are some of his most cherished works. By December of 1786, Mozart had written twelve concerti in three years, concluding with K. 503. He would only write two more before dying in 1791.
Mozart’s piano concerti were written mostly as a vehicle for his own virtuosity. His own letters reveal that he intended these works to delight audiences and make a name for himself as Europe’s greatest musician. The orchestral writing is similar to his operas, and indeed, one can imagine the piano soloist as a character.
K. 503 is one of Mozart’s largest piano concerti, both in length and orchestration. The trumpets and drums give the piece a regal quality, apparent in dotted rhythms of the opening statement. While all three movements are in major keys (C, F, and C), Mozart uses minor keys in unusual ways within movements.
Your piano is too forte!
Performing Mozart comes with a special set of issues. Instruments have changed significantly since the 1780s which creates challenges for performers. No instrument, though, has changed more than the piano during that time. The modern concert grand differs from the 1780s fortepiano in many ways, including the following:
- The modern piano is significantly louder than the fortepiano.
- The modern piano can sustain sound much longer than the fortepiano.
- The fortepiano tends to have a different timbre depending on the range of each note, whereas the modern piano sounds similar in every pitch range.
- The fortepiano has a brighter, almost metallic sound closer to that of a harpsichord. This tone stands out less from an orchestra, especially an 18th-century orchestra.
Some artists prefer to play Mozart on period instruments, and there are some who specialize in music written for the fortepiano. The fortepiano is simply not as pleasant an instrument to many ears, but while I prefer modern instruments when performing Mozart, I also appreciate what period instruments have done to our understanding of this music.
Considering how different Mozart’s instrument was from today’s, it is remarkable how well-suited Mozart’s music is for the modern piano and orchestra. The long, expressive lines in his slow movements benefit most from the modern instrument. The piano’s ability to be heard over an orchestra also allows the other musicians to play out.
Since the modern piano doesn’t blend into the orchestra like the fortepiano, today’s pianists rarely play along during the orchestral sections as Mozart may have. There is also less need for ornaments with the modern piano during slow movements since there is not as much sound-space to “fill” between notes.
About those slow movements…
Pianists have different ideas about how to perform Mozart’s slow movements. There are passages that are so sparse that they almost beg for ornamentation. Take this passage from K. 503:
These slow, two-octave gaps in the right hand could be interpreted two different ways: 1) Mozart is creating a contrast to the more brilliant passage work surrounding this section, or 2) Mozart intends the performer to ornament this passage by filling in some of the space between the high notes and the low.
The late pianist and writer Charles Rosen would argue that the sparse writing is intentionally so for affect (The Classical Style). They are some of his favorite passages because they are so simple. Mitsuko Uchida, who is particularly known for her interpretations of Mozart, wouldn’t dare play this passage as written. She approaches the top notes with a flourish, and her ornaments are always in good taste. These are just some of the decisions a pianist make when performing Mozart.
You will hear the influence of Mozart on the Beethoven concerti we will hear during the 2017 American Pianists Awards Premiere Series. His First and Second Piano Concerti (performed November 6 by Steven Lin and February 26 by Alex Beyer, respectively) are particularly Mozartian. You will hear a style that is more Beethoven in his Third and Fifth (December 4 by Sam Hong and January 29 by Drew Petersen).
Mozart's 503 poses many challenges for the performer in the way of ornamentation and cadenzas. He did not compose a cadenza to the first movement, so it is up to the performer to decide what to do. I try to strike a balance between my own expressive desires while also keeping in the style of Mozart's cadenzas. He tended to write short cadenzas with only a little bit of the main thematic material from the movement. My cadenza I feel leans slightly more toward Beethoven's style harmonically, but is closer in length to Mozart's. I was struck by a passage in the first movement in bar 136 where the orchestra and piano sit on a D-flat major harmony in the first inversion. I wanted to incorporate the distant keys found in the movement (such as the suggestion of A-flat minor in bars 326-334) and elaborate on them in the cadenza. In my cadenza, while it is mostly in a Classical style, the adventurousness of its harmonies echoes Mozart's suggestion of distant harmonies throughout the first movement.
I do add ornaments in the second movement, but the main priority when choosing what to do is to consider whether or not they convey or distract from the music that is already there. If I try a passage with an ornament and I feel that I'm more aware of the ornament than the melodic line, I will omit it. For instance, in the second movement the melody from bars 35-43 is rather bare and might invite the inclusion of ornaments. But for me, this melody is so tender, so direct, and honest that I would rather play it as written, because its beauty comes from its simplicity.
However, in bars 58-63, there are giant leaps which I think beg for some kind of ornamentation to fill in the wide gaps of register. I felt that adding material between the low and high notes gave the impression of the tension one would feel if a singer were to perform such leaps. I think the added material gives a more vocal, expressive quality to the music.
In the last movement, I do very minimal ornamentation, but since it is a rondo, I like to vary the theme slightly (when the piano has it) based on the character of the rondo theme at any specific point in the movement. Sometimes a little trill or turn can help give energy with which to pass the rondo theme to the orchestra.
The American Pianists Awards finalists were selected by jury from nominations of the top American classical pianists aged 18-30. Each pianist performs a Premiere Series concert in Indianapolis between September 2016 and March 2017. All five finalists return to Indianapolis for a week of juried performances next spring, culminating in the naming of a winner on April 8, 2017.
Henry Kramer’s Premiere Series concert featuring Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 will be Sunday, September 25, 2016 at the Indiana History Center. Show your enthusiasm for this piece on social media by mentioning #AmericanPianistsAwards #TeamHenry!