Concerto No. 20 for Piano and Orchestra in D Minor, K. 466

In presenting his new concert to a Viennese audience, WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART was 29 years old, living in the Austrian capital and at the height of his popularity. The audience was ready to embrace any of his new works as long as he was the performer. Even a score as uncharacteristic as the Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor.

A prodigal child, fame accompanies him from an early age. In 1781, Mozart settled permanently in Vienna. Then and there began the most fruitful creative period of his life. During the first five years he wrote one of his most significant operas – Abduction from the Seraglio (1782), symphonies № 33 – 38, a large number of concerts for various instruments, string quartets, sonatas and more. In 1786, Mozart completed his opera Der Schauspieldirektor. The acquaintance of the composer with the court poet of the Viennese court, the Italian Lorenzo da Ponte, played an important role in his opera creations. Three of the most precious Mozart works: The Marriage of Figaro, (1786), Don Giovanni (1787) and Cosi fan Tutti (1790) were based on his librettos. The Marriage of Figaro had a huge success, especially in Prague – for the Prague Opera, Mozart wrote a special Don Giovanni, percieved enthusiastically by the audience. In 1788 his last symphonies – № 39, 40 and 41 – were composed.

Between 1784 and 1785 Mozart wrote a series of piano concertos. They met the expectations of his admirers, following a familiar dramatic pattern: they begin with an orchestral introduction and a dynamic first movement full of beautiful melodies, followed by a graceful slow movement and an energetic finale – a rondo or theme with variations. But his Piano Concerto No 20 differs from the others.

Its completion date was 10 February 1785, and it premiered the following day, 11 February, to great acclaim. Following the usual practice, Mozart himself performed the solo part, also leading the orchestra from the piano. In a letter to the composer’s sister, his father Leopold reported that the concerto was incomparable and the orchestra was excellent, but also noted that the work had been completed the day before the performance and her brother had not been able to even play the last movement, the rondo, beforehand. Such a practice was not uncommon for the brilliant musician, who very often would work on his pieces until the last minute.

Like Mozart’s other works in D minor, the concerto belongs to the most dramatic pages of his oeuvre. It is imbued with a contrasting thematicism.

In the spirit of the concert models of his time, the first movement (Allegro) begins with an orchestral introduction. The nature of this sombre opening has been described by a number of Mozart scholars as significant and anticipatory of the penultimate scene of Don Giovanni written later. Apart from the choice of tonality, the restless syncopated figures in the violins recall Don Giovanni’s encounter with the Stone Guest, who dragged him with him into hell, while the drum-like figures in the cellos and double basses resemble the statue’s knocks at the door. The D minor tonality – rarely found in classical concertos – can also be recognised in the tonality of the second act of his last opera, The Magic Flute, when the Queen of the Night sings of angry vengeance, death and despair.

In contrast to the orchestral introduction, the themes in the solo instrument are expressive, lilting, lyrical, yet occasionally expansive, and the second theme is pastoral. As in the symphonies, Mozart intensifies the drama in the reprise, in which the soloist’s lyrical theme already sounds restless. The composer improvised the cadenza at the premiere, his original idea not retained.

The tune is an integral part of Mozart’s piano concertos and this is one of the reasons why the special relationship between his concertos and operas is emphasised. The second slow movement of the work, marked Romanze, is an excellent example of the composer’s admirable melodic gift. The overall form of the movement follows the structure of the classical rondo in five movements (abaca), ending with the coda. Beginning with a lovely theme, the first contrasting section is exquisite, and the second sounds exuberant with an extended keyboard part.

The magnificent final rondo (Rondo. Allegro assai) is once again distinguished by its drama. But the imaginative development ends optimistically, the pathos of joy asserting itself in the coda. Such a resolution of the finale reaffirms a favourite idea in Mozart’s oeuvre – despite life’s dramas there is always room for festive cheer and amusing jokes.

In the early 19th  century, with changing tastes and standards of virtuosity, many of Mozart’s piano concertos ceased to be performed in public for many years, but the Piano Concerto No. 20 had no such fate. It has been played by Johann Nepomuk Hummel and Ludwig van Beethoven (the concerto was a favourite of Beethoven and the only Mozart piano concerto he performed), Clara Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Ferruccio Busoni. They all composed cadenzas for it. Even today, the Concerto is among the composer’s most repertoire works. It is yet another confirmation of his compositional genius, having produced works in all genres that have established themselves as models of artistic excellence and innovation.

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