Tanglewood 75 - From the Audio Archives: Day 32


Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, K.453
Koussevitzky Music Shed, July 4, 1975

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Bernstein, pianist and conductor

Release: 07/21/2012  


Please note, this release will only be available for sale and download until 9/21.


Background on the Music

Tanglewood 75 Archival Program Cover Mozart composed his Piano Concerto No. 17 for his pupil, Barbara von Ployer, whose nickname was Babette. Mozart finished the concerto on April 10, 1784, and she played it in a concert in her family's summer home outside of Vienna just over two months later, on June 13. Mozart had already composed a piano concerto for her earlier in the year, No. 14 in E-flat, K.449. The two piano concertos in between he composed to perform himself - he was on a roll, and between 1784 and 1786 he would compose a full dozen piano concertos, all of them masterworks.

He may have given the actual premiere of this one; we just don't know - we know about Babette's performance in the von Ployer home, and scholars have conjectured that Mozart may have played it two weeks earlier in Vienna. He did play a concerto, but we don't know which one. The question is academic, but it would be interesting to know if Babette von Ployer knew that her teacher had already played the concerto her father had bought for her - and hired an orchestra for her to play it with. What we can speculate was that there was no bad feeling - Mozart did play his sonata for two pianos with her on this occasion, as well as his Quintet for Piano and Winds, and he brought a friend and colleague along to hear his pupil and his new piece, the Italian composer Giovanni Paisiello.

This concerto is deft and charming and probes deeper emotions in the slow movement, Andante. The finale is a cheerful set of variations on a tune so irresistible that Mozart's pet starling could sing it, but with a touch of rubato and altered pitch variation that intrigued Mozart so much that he wrote it down, decreeing that the bird's version was very beautiful. When the starling died three years later, the Mozart family gathered for a memorial service and interment in the garden, and Mozart wrote a little poem for the occasion.

The young Leonard Bernstein was very serious about his piano lessons. He knew from early on that he wanted to be a conductor and composer, but realized that mastering an instrument would teach him a lot about music and ease the path to the podium. His first important teacher was Henrich Gebhard, a German-American pianist who had studied with Theodor Leschetizky, the leading international piano pedagogue of his time; Gebhard taught in his home in Brookline. At Harvard, by his own admission, Bernstein became insufferable because if there was a piano in the room, he would advance on it and play the musically challenging and pianistically clangorous Variations by Aaron Copland, whom he had not yet met in person. Later, at the Curtis Institute of Music, Bernstein studied piano with the resident grande dame of the keyboard, Isabella Vengerova, who had also studied with Leschetitzky, whose other pupils ranged from Artur Schnabel to Paderewski.

These studies stood him in good stead, and throughout his career he would play a restricted number of concertos, conducting from the keyboard. With the Boston Symphony Orchestra he played two Mozart concertos, Beethoven's First Concerto, his own Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety,and the Ravel Concerto in G. When he played the Ravel in 1949, the other soloist was Laurence Olivier, who took the speaking part in Copland's Preamble.

This is perhaps not the place to go into Bernstein's long, affectionate, and occasionally troubled relationship with the Boston Symphony, which began when he was a young member of the audience at Boston Pops and BSO concerts. He was in the first class of the Tanglewood Music Center starting in 1940, and his first appearance conducting the Boston Symphony was in 1944, when he shared a program with his mentor Serge Koussevitzky - he led the BSO premiere of his own Symphony No. 1, Jeremiah.He probably conducted the BSO more often than any other orchestra apart from the New York Philharmonic, and of course, the final concert of his career was with the BSO at Tanglewood, on August 19, 1990. He also often conducted the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, and had planned to take the TMC Orchestra on its first tour of Europe in the weeks immediately after that final Tanglewood concert.

As a pianist, Bernstein occasionally collaborated with other musicians he respected, most notably the mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel, with whom he left many marvelous recordings as a pianist and conductor; in later years he played recitals with another mezzo-soprano, Christa Ludwig. What was probably his final public keyboard appearance came in 1987 when he played the slow movement of Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in an AIDS benefit in Carnegie Hall with another conductor-pianist, James Levine.

The published reviews of this 4th of July concert at Tanglewood praised the performances of the two Haydn symphonies Bernstein conducted, but came down hard on his keyboard work in the concerto, not that the crowd of more than 11,000 people seemed to mind. Listening to the performance 37 years later, one can hear some, but not all, of the things the critics were carping about. Nearly all of them noted problems of balance between the Baldwin piano Bernstein was using and the orchestra, but of course the radio engineers were able to take care of that. We do hear some split notes and unpolished passagework - after all, Bernstein always had many things on his mind, many things to do, and drilling the mechanics of piano playing did not stand high on the list.

From today's perspective, however, none of that seems to matter all that much in light of how musically alert and alive Bernstein's playing was, and how interactive it was with the orchestra, particularly the solo winds. (Bernstein reseated the orchestra, placing the winds where the cellos usually sat in that era, so that he could see them directly through the back of the piano, as opposed to craning his neck). Most of all, his playing was "out there" - that was the absolute glory, and occasional limitation, of all of his music-making. His conception and playing of the slow movement may have pushed the limits of "correct" style, whatever that might be, but it was also emotionally generous. He was unafraid to take license with the rhythm and tempo in order to unfurl the melodic line, and fill it with feeling, the way a great singer would. Strangely, Bernstein never conducted a Mozart opera; in fact, he conducted very little opera. But his early experience was choice - productions of Bellini's La sonnambula and Cherubini's Medea with Maria Callas in the leading roles. He never conducted either work again, but he also never forgot the lessons he learned from those performances.

Richard Dyer

Leonard Bernstein appears courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon GmbH