By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Friday, May 27, 2016

Mozart's Last Piano Concerto, In His Last Performance As Soloist, 225 Years Ago

A few days ago I shared with you my essay Mozart's Vienna, which I wrote soon after the eventful world-wide Mozart Bicentenary Year (1991) extravaganza was over.  During that year I had written a few reviews of related performances by foreign musicians visiting New Delhi, and also an article about Mozart's last Piano Concerto (which seemed to reflect the melancholy spirit of the maestro's professional life in a feudal society -- just as his Clarinet Concerto did) :-

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New Delhi

5 April 1991

The Farewell Concerto

This is the bicentenary year of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), and quite predictably every chamber music ensemble which comes to New Delhi this year plays some works of the composer.  If we had a symphony orchestra visiting us from the West now, Mozart is bound to be featured prominently in its program. 

But when one thinks a little carefully about this, one realises that there is nothing very special about this scenario, which has always been more or less so!  For Mozart is among the composers of Western classical music whose works figure most frequently in the repertoires of symphony orchestras and chamber music groups in the West.

Mozart composed hundreds of works, the mere cataloguing of which had proved to be an arduous task for the scholars.  They include more than 40 symphonies, many concertos for the piano and one for the clarinet, numerous quartets and quintets for the string and wind instruments, many pieces of music for vocal and instrumental ensembles, several sonatas for the piano and the violin, many operas, serenades, masses, oratorios, cantatas, litanies and songs, and even some ballet music.  And this stupendous body of music was created within a short life-span of 35 years -- a truly mind-boggling achievement!

It is ironic that Mozart led a very insecure and troubled life, never being free from debts and worries, stifled by and rebelling against the enslavement of the artist in the 18th century feudal Europe.  Even though he had created a sensation all over the Continent and in England as a pianist when he was a mere child, he never tasted success in terms of the luxury and joy of a life free from petty concerns and frustration.

The tragedy of Mozart's life is perhaps summed up by a public announcement made in March 1791, just a few months before he passed away due to terminal illness :  "Herr Bahr, Chamber Musician presently in the service of the Imperial Russian Majesty, will have the honour of being heard playing several pieces on the clarinet, at a grand musical concert on Friday next, March 4, in Herr Jahn's hall, at which Madame Lange will sing and  Kappellmeister Mozart will play a concerto on the fortepiano.  Those still wishing to subscribe can obtain their tickets from Herr Jahn.  The concert begins at 7 p.m."

Not having any interesting musical preoccupation last week-end, I just imagined attending the concert at Herr Jahn's, which was a famous restaurant in Vienna.  It turned out to be nothing less than the premiere of Mozart's Piano Concerto in B-Flat Major (K-595), although the composer-soloist was so far down in the billing.  The 595 Concerto is not known to be a joyful composition , unlike many of Mozart's works.  In the words of Wolfgang Hildescheimer ("Mozart", Dent & Sons, London, 1983, page 300), it is "thought to have the quality of a transfigured farewell."  Indeed, it really was Mozart's last performance as a soloist.

My limited reading and research do not enable me to know how precisely the public and the critics reacted to Mozart'ss composition and performance that Friday evening in Vienna 200 years ago.  So far as I was concerned, with my 20th century perception of the master and his works, in my mind's eye I left Jahn's hall in a euphoric mood, determined to write a rave review predicting immortal fame for the composer, the pianist and the concerto.

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PostScript, 2016

Sound and spirit
As mentioned earlier, I was swept by an emotional hurricane when I wrote Mozart's Vienna, and kept listening to an LP record of the Clarinet Concerto repeatedly as I sorted out my thoughts, selected my quotations, and typed out the text.  I had been in a far less convulsive mood when writing Farewell Concerto a few months earlier, and didn't have a recording of it to hear during the exercise anyway. 

But as I set out to key in this vintage article again now after a quarter-century, I did feel extremely moved, and couldn't resist turning to YouTube for the sound and spirit of the music.  And I found, among others :

A powerful recital in the majestic ambiance of a superior 20th century concert hall, showing Russian pianist Emil Gilels with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig :

A delicate performance on the fortepiano, as in Mozart's own times :

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