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Monday, November 04, 2002
Criticising musical masterpieces

When I was just a callow lad, not many years after reasonable quality recorded sound became taken for granted, a friend of mine came back from the Salzburg music festival with an absorbing vinyl disc. The recording was of two of Mozart's piano concertos: nos. 23 & 24, K488 and K491, respectively. We played the record incessantly. Who wouldn't - we had two of Mozart's finest works to hand.

It never occurred to us at the time to rank one above the other; they were both exquisite examples of the oeuvre of the greatest composer of them all. Recently, my esteemed blogmother Poet & Peasant blogged about what she thought was Mozart's finest piano concerto (perhaps she said 'favourite' rather than 'finest') so I began to give some thought to my own preference. Faced with that sort of challenge, and wanting to be able to justify my choice with evidence, I started some serious research several weeks ago. I have several recordings of K488 (A major) but none of K491 (C minor) so I remedied that with the 1994 Uchida/Tate CD (Phillips) of the two together

Before I discuss the relative merits of the pair, I want to emphasise the difficulty of making such a comparison. These masterpieces, if they have 'flaws', have them at such a high level that it is invidious to attempt to find fault. There used to be a BBC radio programme - Talking about Music, by Anthony Hopkins [no, not the 'Hannibal Lechter' actor] - that did much to help my musical appreciation. [The programme has since been superseded and improved by the excellent Discovering Music.] One of Hopkins's programmes was about Beethoven's Symphony no. 3, The Eroica. The criticism he made of the symphony was its balance: the third and fourth movements are inappropriately short compared to the first two. This is something one doesn't notice until it is pointed out. So, can we make similar high level comparison of the Mozart concertos?

Duration is not a problem: the A major and C minor concertos last roughly the same time, 25 or 30 minutes, and there is no imbalance of movement length. The orchestration of K491 is heavier: oboes, timpani, and trumpets, absent in K488, are added in K491. This gives the later work a more symphonic feel but this is not necessarily a 'plus'. Nor is the remark allegedly made about the last movement of K491, by Beethoven to a pupil: ' and I will never get an idea like that,' but it gives us the key to the answer.

Mozart was the supreme craftsman: he often did the unexpected but, whatever he does, it always feels so right. The movements of each work slot together as part of a magical and continuing whole. Or do they?

If we compare the two concertos movement by movement, the first two 'draw': they are both incredibly beautiful, both melodically and structurally, and they 'belong' together. The third movements provide the greatest contrast. The A major finale is gay and light, a release of tension after the searing poignancy of the adagio. The C minor finale, on the other hand, deepens the tension, rather than releasing it. Although it is a simple theme and variations, one could appreciate Beethoven's comment, if he ever made it.

Therefore, the argument pivots on the nature of the third movements and whether or not they are appropriate. When I listen to K488, before the third movement starts, I know what comes next but I would prefer something heavier; I sometimes feel that the finale belongs to another work On the other hand, K491 ends totally idiomatically, just as I want it to. So, K491 gets my vote when my arm is twisted. But I would rather it weren't...

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