Piano Concerto No.18

About this work

Neglected as Mozart's "other" B flat concerto (the more famous being his last, K. 595), K. 456 rests just at the cusp of Mozart's greatest, most individual piano concertos. The interplay of piano and orchestra is assured, and the music occasionally drifts into minor mode realms hinting at the poignance to come in some of the later works. What holds this concerto back from Mozart's absolute first rank is the frilly nature of much of the piano writing; it's more entertaining than expressive. Mozart apparently composed this Concerto in B flat -- the fifth of six concerti he wrote in 1784 -- not for himself but for a 25-year-old blind pianist Maria Theresia Paradis. Blind or not, Paradis was famous as a virtuosa, and Mozart would later play the concerto in public himself.

The orchestra creeps into the opening Allegro vivace with an almost tentative march figure that builds in busyness and loudness, only to give way to a vague, questioning passage in the woodwinds that is soon replaced by more chattering yet pastoral material, the strings eventually returning with music distantly related to a hunting call. The material Mozart has set out is fragmentary and harmonically unsettled, but the effect is hardly disturbing; it calls to mind the little surprises one encounters throughout a day in the countryside. The piano arrives to launch a recap of the themes, presenting, with orchestral backing, a more ornate version of several of the motifs. The keyboard often works in dialogue with the woodwinds, a trait of all Mozart's later concertos. The piano skips into the development section with a tripping, lighthearted version of the little march, and proceeds through the other themes with trills and filigree. A solo cadenza interrupts the loose recapitulation just before the brief coda.

The slow movement, Andante un poco sostenuto, again foreshadows the minor key miracles of the concertos to come. It's a series of variations on a bittersweet theme presented by the orchestra and immediately ornamented by the piano. The melody becomes rather hazy in the pianist's hands, but intervening orchestral statements redefine it in treatments that become increasingly tragic and dramatic. The piano returns to relieve much of the tension, leading into a sequence of gentler, more pastoral and intermittently sunny variations. A caressing darkness descends, though, upon the movement's final passages.

The Allegro vivace is a rondo taking off from a joyful, repeated-note theme. Mozart's piano writing here veers from music-box ornate to flashily virtuosic (by the standards of the 1780s) with much rapid passagework. Mozart aims for great contrast of tempos, although the mood always remains bright, with notes cascading through the dexterous cadenza just before the end.