Mozart à la Mode

Mozart, Piano Concertos No. 20 in D minor, K. 466, and No. 21 in C, K. 467 conducted by John Eliot Gardiner

with Malcolm Bilson, fortepiano, and English Baroque Soloists,
Archiv, CD 419 609-2

Mozart, Piano Concertos No. 22 in E flat, K. 482, and No. 23 in A, K. 488 conducted by John Eliot Gardiner

with Malcolm Bilson, fortepiano, and English Baroque Soloists,
Archiv, CD 423 595-2

Mozart, Piano Concertos No. 25 in C, K. 503, and No. 26 in D, K. 537 conducted by John Eliot Gardiner

with Malcolm Bilson, fortepiano, and English Baroque Soloists,
Archiv, CD 423 119-2

Mozart and Schnabel, Vol. II, Piano Concerto No. 20

with the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Walter Susskind
Arabesque, CD Z6591

Mozart and Schnabel, Vol. II, Piano Concerto No. 21

with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent
Arabesque, CD Z6591

Mozart and Schnabel, Vol. II, Sonata No. 12 in F, K. 332

with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent
Arabesque, CD Z6591

Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 26 in D, K. 537, and Rondos, K. 382 and 386

with Murray Perahia, piano and, the English Chamber Orchestra.
CBS Masterworks, CD MK 39224

Mozart, Piano Concertos No. 23 in A, K. 488, and No. 27 in B flat, K. 595

with Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano and, the Philharmonia Orchestra.
London, CD 499 087-2

Several complete or nearly complete recordings of Mozart’s piano concertos are listed as available—though whether you will be able to find them at your local record store, or even order them, is another question. What you are more likely to find are CD reissues of famous old Mozart performances: performances by Schnabel, Casadesus, Lipatti, Michelangeli, Clara Haskil, Myra Hess, Clifford Curzon, and others, none of them much improved by digital remastering. The first to issue a complete Mozart set was Alfred Brendel, whose ten CDs span the transition from the analogue to the digital eras (1970–1984). He has been followed by Murray Perahia, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and, most recently, Malcolm Bilson.1

The Bilson series has stimulated occasional gusts of interest ever since the first disc, featuring Concerto No. 9 in E flat, K. 271 (“Jeunehomme”), was issued in 1983. The impending completion of the series allows for a comprehensive appraisal of Bilson’s enterprise. As a Mozart player Bilson stands up very well, I believe, not only to his more renowned contemporaries, but also to the venerable and revered remastered masters. His achievement has a good deal to tell us about the current scene in musical performance, as I shall try to suggest later.

Most of Mozart’s thirty-odd piano concertos and concerto rondos were written in the 1780s, the last decade of his life, after he had broken away from his traditional position as provincial court servant and set himself up as a freelance composer and performer in Josephine Vienna. Brillant successes were matched by depressing failures; his final success—Die Zauberflöte—came just too late and he died young, of course, in straitened circumstances. Among his earlier successes were a run of Akademien, or subscription concerts, which he was able to set up, most of them featuring concertos.

With these concertos, Mozart attempted to make the scene in music’s capital city. On one level, the inner drama of concerto relationships invites a metaphorical reading as one person’s effort to gain acceptance from the group. On another level, the concerto is the genre which more than any other (even opera) was fine-tuned by its composer to dazzle and delight his contemporaries.

That the Mostly Mozart audiences of today are pleased by exactly what the composer wrote to please his own paying public must count as a mysterious circumstance, possibly even an ominous one. Our special empathy for these works is much less easy to understand than the lack of interest in them during the nineteenth century. Only one concerto survived in the repertory for very long after Mozart’s death, the turbulent Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466, and it has had to pay a price for its solitariness, as Charles Rosen observed:

The D minor Concerto is almost as much myth as work of art: when listening to it, as to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, it is difficult at times to say whether we are hearing the work or its reputation, our collective image of it.2

The canonization…


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