Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467 (“Elvira Madigan”)

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          Mozart is largely responsible for the creation of the modern piano concerto, composing them primarily for himself to support his career as a performer.  His spending habits consistently placed him in financial difficulties, and since he usually desperately needed to concertize, concertos were a natural solution.  He composed some twenty-three of them, starting about 1767.  Although his operas exceed his piano concertos in musical genius, and historical significance, no other genre of his is so consistently high in quality and maturity. 

          While the concerto—employing a variety of solo instruments, or groups of solo instruments—had been a staple of concerts for over a hundred years by Mozart’s time, it was the advent of the piano by the late eighteenth century that enabled the genre to reach its highest expressive possibilities.  Only the sonority and tonal weight of the piano really provides for an equal partner to the orchestra, and thus a foundation for the dramatic interplay between solo and accompaniment that is basic to the genre.   Mozart’s contribution, other than his consummate musical genius, of course, was to “beef up” the rôle of the orchestra from one of simple accompaniment to that of co-protagonist in the musical drama.  He also established a clear succession of sections in the form of the first movement.

            So, Mozart’s piano concertos have long been basic to our concert life, but the popularity of a Swedish art film in 1967 brought the timeless beauty of one of these works to a worldwide audience that, no doubt, had never paid much, if any, attention to them.  Elvira Madigan was the true story of a lovely Danish tightrope dancer and her lover, a married Swedish army officer.  In 1889 he renounced his career, commenced a hopeless love affair with the younger woman, and after an idyllic month together and penniless, they packed a picnic lunch.  Journeying to an impossibly beautiful island (still a pilgrimage site for lovers and romanticists) off the coast of Denmark, they consumed the lunch and a bottle of wine, and then committed suicide.  A cinematic overload of impressionistic sylvan colors, romantic clothing, and long, sad gazes, the beautiful tragedy was immeasurably enhanced by a soundtrack that featured the sensitive performance of the slow movement of Mozart’s concerto by the Hungarian pianist, Géza Anda (d. 1976)—and the concerto forevermore is thought of as the “Elvira Madigan Concerto.”   But, that’s OK—Mozart has suffered more grievously at the hands of film directors than this.

             The first movement opens with what sounds like a little march, but to me sounds more like the wry Rossini’s opera buffa shenanigans.  Much of the movement is based upon this idea, but two more fine ones soon appear, forming more or less a group of themes.  When the piano finally appears, after a little flourish it takes off in the totally unexpected key of G minor, but G major soon appears in an especially ingratiating simple descending scalar passage.  Mozart surprises us again with yet another brand-new theme in the development in E minor—you’re not supposed to do this according to the text books, but that’s genius for you.  After a development that admirably shows off both the orchestra and piano in a variety of contrasting ways that always feature the lyrical themes that we have heard, the recap rounds off the movement, with a cadenza at the end, usually written by the soloist, since Mozart’s cadenza is lost.

            The famous slow movement ensues, with gently throbbing triplets in the strings providing a marvelous rhythmic contrast to the duplets in the piano.   Especially charming is Mozart’s employment of great leaps (but gentle ones) from the high register to the low register in the solo piano.  Harmonic—some would say, romantic, as well—interest is generated near the end of the movement by a temporary sojourn in the rather distant key of Ab major before this most beautiful andante concludes.  The last movement is one that features a jolly theme that returns frequently after being interspersed with contrasting ones—there’s a bit of development in the middle.   The soloist has lots of opportunity to display digital virtuosity (but always tasteful) as the characteristic interplay with the orchestra eventually leads to the cadenza and one more shot at the main theme in a zestful end to it all.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2022 William E. Runyan