- Concerto No. 14 in E-flat major for Piano and String Quintet, K. 449 (1784)
Allegro ma non troppo
Alessio Bax, piano • Arnaud Sussmann, violin • Bella Hristova, violin • Paul Neubauer, viola • Sophie Shao, cello • Joseph H. Conyers, double bass
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Salzburg, 1756 - Vienna, 1791)
Mozart composed this concerto at a watershed moment in his career. By 1784, he had been living in Vienna for three years and, after attempting various money-making ventures, came upon the one that would earn him substantial money and increase his fame: his own subscription concert series. He rented a small performance space for the last three Wednesdays in Lent and secured an impressive 176 subscribers that comprised a veritable who’s who of Viennese society. A renowned pianist, he knew that performing a new concerto would be a highlight. The first concert, on March 17, 1784, featured this concerto, K. 449 in E-flat major. Mozart wrote to his father, “The hall was full to overflowing; and the new concerto I played won extraordinary applause. Everywhere I go I hear praises of that concert.” The years 1784-86 were Mozart’s most successful years in Vienna and his piano concertos played a major role in his popularity.
Mozart’s music was also in demand for home performance and K. 449 was one of a number of piano concertos that he said could be accompanied by a string quartet (reinforced by double bass in this performance) rather than the small orchestra that performed the premiere. In his catalogue he marked the wind parts ad libitum (or optional). The first movement, in concerto form with an extended introduction and dramatic solo entrance, is in an unusual 3/4 time and the major key is shaded by passages in minor throughout. The cadenza near the end was written out by the composer. The poised slow movement leads to a jaunty rondo finale infused with intricate counterpoint. Another cadenza (which Mozart did not write out) introduces a romping final section in 6/8 time.
Since I was a little boy, Mozart held a very special place in my heart, for it is in Mozart’s output that we can clearly see the universality of the musical language. His music speaks to each one of us directly, honestly, and without any boundaries or need for translation. Somehow, Mozart wrote music that is simple yet deep, immaculate yet human. That is perhaps why Mozart is so universally understood and loved. We musicians are always humbled, astonished, and also challenged and intimidated by the perfection of Mozart’s music and the skill that is required in order to share its depth and constant sense of wonder with the audience. Honoring the genius of Mozart is one of the greatest privileges a musician could have.
Lucille Chung and Alessio Bax
May 19, 2019
Béla Bartók (Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary [now in Romania], 1881 - New York, 1945)
Bartók wrote this piece in 1937 for Swiss benefactor Paul Sacher and the International Society for Contemporary Music in Basel. The composer thought up the unusual instrumentation, perhaps inspired by the success of another Sacher commission that premiered at the beginning of the year: his Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, which included piano. After that orchestral work, Bartók stated that he believed two pianos were necessary to balance out a battery of percussion for a chamber work. In a nod to the difficulty of the percussion parts, Bartók changed the title from Quartet to Sonata before the premiere to allow for performances that may require three percussionists. The premiere took place in Basel on January 16, 1938 with the composer and his wife at the pianos alongside two Swiss percussionists.
Three days before the premiere, Bartók published a detailed analysis of the sonata in the local newspaper. The first movement—by far the longest—is in sonata form with a slow introduction, percussive first theme, and mysterious second theme. The main part of the development section breaks down the first theme before it returns in a powerful climax punctuated by the xylophone. The slow movement is in Bartók’s characteristic night music style, with quiet, atmospheric melodies broken up by rustling insect sounds. The last movement is a boisterous rondo.
Program notes by Laura Keller, CMS Editorial Manager
The Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, in addition to reimagining the chamber ensemble, also opened a new chapter in Bartók’s performing career. He and his wife, Ditta Pásztory, went on to perform frequently together, especially after they moved to the US in 1940.
Alessio and I were first asked to play together for the 10th anniversary of the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival and Steinway and Sons’ 150th anniversary. It was a huge piano extravaganza which included 16 pianists and 10 Steinway Concert Grand Pianos on the stage of the National Arts Centre in Canada. In the middle of this gargantuan program, we performed the Romance from Rachmaninov’s Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos. In that evening’s context, it felt like an intimate interlude and the heart of the program. Now, 17 years later (!), we still love to explore a genre of music making that is so human, trusting, intimate, and satisfying.
What advice do you have for aspiring musicians?
Alessio Bax: Every day that I play the piano I try to think first about the music I’m playing. In a way we’re so lucky to make close contact with some of the greatest art that has ever been produced so I think that should always come first. Not to showcase our abilities but to use our abilities to showcase the music.
Is there a moment when you knew you had to be a musician?
AB: As a kid, once you love something you think there’s nothing else in the world. Music was not my first love. I was born in Italy and as an Italian my first love was soccer. After a few weeks, I saw my friends playing in the street who were so much better than I was. That dream was over so the next thing was music. I feel very lucky not to have changed that dream.