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Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K.466

Wolfgang Mozart’s D minor piano concerto is one of just two concertos he wrote in a minor key

Joannes Chrisostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart, who began calling himself Wolfgango Amadeo around 1770 during his first trip to Italy and switched to Wolfgang Amadè in 1777, but who never used Amadeus except in jest, was born in Salzburg, Austria, on January 27, 1756, and died in Vienna on December 5, 1791. He completed the D minor piano concerto on February 10, 1785, and was soloist in the first performance the very next day, at the Mehlgrube Casino in Vienna. Cadenzas by Mozart for this concerto do not survive; at these performances, Eric Lu plays cadenzas by Beethoven.

In addition to the solo piano, the score calls for an orchestra of flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The concerto is about 32 minutes long.

On February 14, 1785, Leopold Mozart sent his daughter Marianne, called Nannerl by the family, news of her famous younger brother in Vienna: “[I heard] a new and excellent piano concerto by Wolfgang, where the copyist was still at work when we arrived, and your brother didn’t even have time to play through the rondo because he had to supervise the copying operation.” It was not a unique experience for Mozart: in April of the previous year, for example, he had given, to tumultuous applause, the premiere of his exceedingly difficult violin sonata in B-flat, K.454, with a violinist whom he had not met for a rehearsal, who had barely received her part in time for the concert, and with himself playing from sheets that were blank except for a few stenographic reminders.

Testimony, all that, not just of Mozart’s facility and confidence, but as well to his popularity in the years just after his move from Salzburg to Vienna in 1781. That popularity reached its crest in 1784-85. On March 3, 1784, he wrote to his father that he had had twenty-two concerts in thirty-eight days, adding, “I don’t think that in this way I can possibly get out of practice.” From this popularity grows the astonishing run of piano concertos that Mozart wrote in those years: eleven of them between February 1784 (K.449 in E-flat) and March 1786 (K.488 in A and K.491 in C minor). In the remaining not quite six years of his life he wrote just three more piano concertos, the second of them for a journey to Frankfurt, the last for an appearance as supporting artist in a Vienna concert by someone else.

K.466 is one of only two Mozart concertos in a minor key, and of the two it is the stormier. It does not surprise that the young Beethoven made a powerful impression as an interpreter of this piece when he moved to Vienna soon after Mozart’s death, and he wrote for it a pair of superbly intelligent and powerfully expressive cadenzas that are still heard more often than any others. And during the 19th century, at a time when Mozart was widely perceived as a gifted forerunner of Beethoven, the D minor concerto was the only one of his piano concertos to hold its place in the repertoire.

It shows its temper instantly in an opening that is without theme, all atmosphere and gesture: violins and violas throb in agitated syncopations, most of their energy concentrated on the rhythm, while the pitches at first change little, and low strings anticipate the beats with upward scurries of quick notes. A general crescendo of activity—the bass notes occur twice in each measure rather than just once, the violin melody becomes more active (that is, more like a melody), all the lines push toward higher registers—and the full orchestra enters with flashes of lightning to illumine the scene. Most of what follows in the next few minutes is informed more by pathos than by rage, the most affecting moment of all being reserved for the first entrance—with an almost new melody over an already familiar accompaniment—of the solo piano. And now the witty and serious play of conversation, of exchange of materials can begin, and the opportunity for the pianist to ravish with the plangency of simulated song or to dazzle with mettlesome traversal of brilliant passages.

All these storms eventually recede in a pianissimo fascinatingly seasoned with the distant thud of drums and the low tones, so curiously hollow, of trumpets. The second movement, after this, is by intention mild. Mozart gives no tempo indication; neither does his designation “Romance” denote specific form as much as suggest a certain atmosphere of gently serene songfulness. An interlude brings back the minor mode of the first movement and something of its storms, but this music is far more regular and to that degree less agitating. And in all its formality, Mozart’s slow application of brakes as he approaches the return of his romance melody is one of his most masterful strokes of rhythmic invention.

The piano launches the finale, a feast of irregularities, ambiguities, surprises, and subtle allusions to the first movement. Its most enchanting feature is perhaps the woodwind tune that is first heard harmonically a bit off-center in F major; then in a delicious variant whose attempt to be serious about being in D minor is subverted by the coquettish intrusion of F-sharps and B-naturals from the world of D major; and again after the cadenza, now firmly in major and on the home keynote of D, determined to lead the ebullient rush to the final double bar.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg was program annotator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1976 to 1979, and after that of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. Oxford University Press has published three compilations of his program notes, devoted to symphonies, concertos, and the great works for chorus and orchestra.

The first American performance of K.466 was on March 16, 1861, with the New York Philharmonic Society and soloist Richard Hoffman under the direction of Carl Bergmann.

The first Boston Symphony performance of this concerto was on February 20, 1886, with Mrs. H.H.A. (Amy) Beach as soloist and Wilhelm Gericke conducting.