Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K. 488
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Length: c. 26 minutes
Orchestration: flute, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 12, 1930, with George Stewart McManus, Artur Rodzinski conducting
This work dates from early 1786, when Mozart was in demand chiefly as a composer of vocal music – Le nozze di Figaro was taking shape at the same time. But the fickle Viennese public, which had three years earlier so lavishly acclaimed the piano concertos by the young virtuoso from Salzburg, was hardly clamoring for more. Mozart nevertheless went ahead with their composition, in the belief that he could seduce the public with his unquenchable ability to come up with something new and tantalizing.
Without question, there is something new in all three piano concertos he would produce even when his former patrons were seeking other musical sensations: the festive – and profound – Concerto in E-flat, K. 482; the dark, dramatic C minor, K. 491; and between those two giants, this lithe and gracious work in the key of A major, which it shares with the equally mellow Clarinet Concerto, his last instrumental composition. K. 488, like its two near contemporaries, was intended for Mozart’s own performance and all three were probably first heard at Lenten season concerts in 1786. All remained unpublished at his death.
The A-major Piano Concerto replaces the bright-toned oboes usually found in Mozart’s concertos with clarinets, for darker coloration, particularly in the passionate, richly chromatic slow movement in the rare key of F-sharp minor. But unlike K. 482 and K. 491, which likewise employ clarinets, there are no trumpets and drums here. The atmosphere remains intimate, with interchanges between the woodwinds – flute, clarinets, bassoons – heightening the chamber-music feeling of the first two movements; and while the rondo-finale may be a send-’em-home-smiling affair, it hardly lacks those passing touches of pathos without which Mozart simply wouldn’t be Mozart.
K. 488 has all the characteristics of the work of a wise old master, giving the impression of having seen and heard everything and having no regrets. And in a sense Mozart was old, at the age of 30.
Mozart, K. 488, and Stalin?
This is a story that had circulated in Russian musical circles well before it was wholesaled in Testimony – The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich: As Related to and Edited by Solomon Volkov. Shostakovich, according to Volkov, related it to him and it is related here, with interjections and observations by the present writer.
In his final years Stalin became addicted to listening to music on the radio, on one occasion a performance of Mozart’s K. 488, played by Maria Yudina, a particular favorite of his – surprisingly, since she was as celebrated for her non-conforming political views as for her interpretations of Shostakovich (of whom she was a close friend), Bach, and Mozart. Instead of playing encores at her recitals, she would read poems by banned Russian writers and recite the sayings of Russian Orthodox clerics: rather than hiding her beliefs, she trumpeted them, so to speak.
Stalin asked Moscow Radio for a copy of Yudina’s K. 488 and they agreed to send it immediately. The problem was that this was a live performance and it had not been recorded. The radio people called Yudina and hastily assembled an orchestra late that night, delivering the recording to Stalin the following day. Volkov relates Shostakovich’s words: “Soon after [Stalin heard the recording] Yudina received an envelope with 20,000 rubles... To which she responded: ‘I thank you, Joseph Vissarionovich... I will pray for you day and night and that the Lord forgive you your great sins...’” The pianist is said to have donated the 20,000 rubles to her church.
Oddly, Yudina was never censured nor imprisoned for any of her renegade acts and her career continued until shortly before her death in 1970. “They [who?] say [according to Shostakovich/Volkov] that her recording of the Mozart concerto was on the record player when the leader was found dead in his dacha [in 1953]. It was the last thing he had listened to.” Whether one believes all, parts, or none of the story, Yudina did make the recording (or a recording of K. 488) and the matrix survived. Her performance is available on CD and can currently be downloaded from YouTube.
Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival for more than a decade.