Mozart Piano Concerto No 27, by Angela Hewitt

Gramophone Mon 5th September 2016

For Hewitt, the transcendental power of Mozart’s last piano concerto makes it emotional to play

The K595 Concerto stands out on its own. There’s something quite particular about it that started in K503 and K537 – concertos that immediately preceded it and that are already a little bit different from the ones that came before them. This piece does have a certain feeling, and I don’t think it’s because we now know it’s Mozart’s last concerto because, of course, he didn’t know it was going to be his last – but there’s a paring down. Yet the harmonic language is becoming more daring, more surprising, and the overall mood is very melancholic. We know 1791 wasn’t a very good time for the composer – he had fallen a bit out of favour in Vienna, he wasn’t putting on his own concerts any more, his subscription series had fallen through, Constanze was always ill and he had only two pupils left – but in this year he did write an amazing amount of stuff.

Mozart wasn’t just trying to show off any more, he was beyond that. When he was making his name in Vienna he had to please the Viennese, who could be quite fickle. He never wrote music just to entertain, but I think that by the time he got to this concerto he didn’t care about that at all. It’s important that he was no longer writing just to please his Viennese audience.

Even the way this concerto starts sets a mood, with its slow pulsing accompaniment in the lower strings, and then the theme that comes in. I don’t think you can play it with the same outlook as you’d play Mozart’s other concertos. It’s not a happy-go-lucky piece. If you play it in that mood you’re missing something. There are a lot of sighing figures in it and a lot of really abrupt changes of key, especially in the development section of the first movement. In the passagework, every note has to sing and it shouldn’t be too rushed. Nothing is there just for brilliant display.

Daring keys and harmonies

The key changes in the first movement are radical. In the development we’re thrown into a series of keys – B flat major, B minor, C major, E flat minor – and each key has to have its own character. These sudden shifts of mood are very important. In the development section, the structure is quite different from that in others of Mozart’s concertos, with more repetition of the same material in different keys – something he had started to do a bit in K503. What strikes me the most is that even when the themes are in the major key they’re really not that happy.

In the first movement Mozart put in so many daring harmonies, and in the second he wrote something drastically simple. The theme here is very bare first of all and doesn’t travel much harmonically. It’s one of his simplest. I’ve tried so many different tempos in this movement, and even when I was recording it we had two different versions. I don’t think it should be too slow. It’s Larghetto alla breve, so two to the bar, not four; and because the harmonies aren’t complicated, there has to be this lovely pulsing accompaniment in the left hand (the orchestra accompanies the theme later in bar 49). There’s a bit of room for ornamentation in this movement as well. When you think of the slow movements of other concertos, such as K482 or K466, this is quite different in mood. There’s a sadness behind it, which, I think, is carried along into the third movement.

The final movement is linked to the song that Mozart wrote about yearning for spring, Sehnsucht nach dem Frühlinge, K596, and you wonder if it was in his mind that he wouldn’t see another spring. I like to carry on that mood a little bit, and then when the orchestra comes in it’s more of a hunting song. In anything you interpret, if you change the tempo even the slightest amount it changes the character. So by not taking this last movement too fast, you do change the character. For me, the most magical moment is after the cadenza that Mozart left us, where that theme comes back and the orchestra comes in – that makes me cry every time. For me this piece is worth playing just for bar 281!

In the development section of the last movement there are some extraordinary modulations. And I think that the transcendent aspect is very important. In a way, the first two movements keep us waiting for this finale. In some concertos, like the C minor (K491) and the D minor (K466), and many others, the first movement is already epic, but in this one, for me, everything leads to the last movement. Some last movements can be a happy finale to what’s gone before, but if I see the whole piece as one arc, I see that it leads to this.

The chamber music approach

It’s a real experience to perform it. If the performance goes well you can’t remain unmoved. When I conduct it myself, I treat it like chamber music. You have to be careful with dynamics and balance and the parts that need to be brought out, whereas in a piece like K537 it’s more a case of the orchestra accompanying endless scales and arpeggios. But this is very much chamber music, and it’s lovely to conduct it from the piano. I also think you need that feeling of intimacy – this is an intimate piece.

I’ve probably conducted it from the piano more than I have played it with a conductor, but it was great to work on it for the recording with Hannu Lintu, because he’s a wonderful accompanist and takes such care over the orchestra. He also doesn’t mind trying out different versions – well, not too much!

I believe this is one of the concertos of very few in the whole piano repertoire that really is transcendent. I don’t say that lightly. I think the ones that have that power are this one, Beethoven’s Fourth, Brahms’s First and Bach’s D minor Keyboard Concerto – works that just take you to a higher place. And this one does it mainly because of the theme in the last movement. When it comes back at the end, it is so heartbreaking. To what extent did he know that he wasn’t going to live very much longer? I think there must have been some kind of premonition.

Explore more great piano concertos

Beethoven Piano Concerto No 5, by Paul Lewis

Brahms Piano Concerto No 2, by Nicholas Angelich

Grieg Piano Concerto, by Leif Ove Andsnes

Prokofiev Piano Concerto No 3, by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet

Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 2, by Stephen Hough

Ravel Piano Concerto in G, by Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Schumann Piano Concerto, by Ingrid Fliter

Shostakovich Piano Concerto No 2, by Alexander Melnikov

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No 1, by Yevgeny Sudbin

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