Concerto No. 27

in B-Flat Major for Piano and Orchestra, K. 595, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Piano Concerto Number 27 was not only Mozart’s last piano concerto but also the last piece he performed in public on March 4, 1791. At this time, his popularity was low and he performed in an Academy concert featuring a singer and clarinetist Joseph Bahr. Mozart was placed third on the program. By any metric, 1791 was a terrible year for Mozart—his fame was waning, he had enormous money problems, his wife was ill, and he was thoroughly depressed.  In a letter to his wife at that time, he wrote, “If people could see into my heart, I would almost have to be ashamed…everything is cold for me­—ice cold.”  In December of that year, Mozart died. Some have said that this work was Mozart’s farewell, but such attribution relies heavily on hindsight. It is very possible that Mozart was entering a new phase and style, which would be cut short. Some of those new elements exist in this piece.

On January 5, 1791, Piano Concerto Number 27 was placed in the Mozart catalog. (It is counted as Number 27 if one includes the four arrangements for piano and orchestra, which Mozart wrote when he was eleven. Subtracting these, it is then number 23, or number 21, if counting only solo piano concerti.)

Opus 595 speaks in a subdued, intimate, persuasive voice. There are no trumpets or percussion to add dramatic flourishes.  The music is masterfully conceived, concentrated, always unruffled, and deceptively “simple.”  It stands worlds apart from the preceding sparkling Coronation Concerto (written three years before), so named because Mozart played this at the time of the coronation of Leopold II as Holy Roman Emperor in October of 1790.

The first movement, Allegro, opens gently with a graceful introduction starting with murmuring accompaniment before moving lightly, lyrically, within the string and wind sections, sometimes interrupting one another, and sometimes cooperating together in melodic presentation. The pianist enters sotto voce with decorated passagework presented calmly and without virtuosity. The development is introduced by the piano, examining the first theme: but ever so gently and persuasively, Mozart takes us through approximately 20 modulations and harmonic diversity via piano and orchestra before arriving at the recapitulation. Such harmonic explorations and deftness forecast new musical horizons.

Mozart’s second movement, Larghetto, moves into “radiant melancholy” (Michael Steinberg) and the form is tri-partite. Again, the simplicity is deceiving—nothing is easy herein.  The music is profound yet clearly stated.  And in that clarity it also has an ambiguity, as if something was not stated but obviously present—the hidden emotions of maturity and wise reticence.

The last movement, Allegro, is a rondo which includes two cadenzas. At this point, the pianist is unleashed into classical-style virtuosity, always controlled, never played with abandon, however stunning and exciting.  Its main theme is friendly, free, happy and endlessly beguiling. Variations unfold in a tumble, with superb imagination, intrigue and excitement. Mozart was not intending to dazzle us, but indeed he does.  Therein lies the concerto’s ineffable, unforgettable brilliance and legacy.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016.

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