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Classics on Sunday: Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 20 in D minor


WOLFGANG Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) wrote 23 piano concertos, only two of which were in minor keys (which tend to sound less cheerful). This is the first, K466, written in 1785. The other, No 24 in C minor, was written the following year.

The minor key however does not seem to reflect Mozart’s life at the time. In 1785 he was aged 29 and living in Vienna with his wife Constanze. They had been married three years; their first child died at two months but their second, Karl Thomas, was born in 1784 and survived. (There would be four more babies, only one of whom survived infancy.)

Musically and financially Mozart was doing well. He had once written to his father that Vienna was ‘the land of the piano’, and his greatest triumphs there were as a pianist-composer. From 1782 to 1785 he mounted concerts with himself as a soloist, presenting three or four new piano concertos in each season. During one spell of little more than five weeks he appeared at 22 concerts, mainly in the homes of the nobility but including five concerts of his own. These were very popular, and money was coming in. The family moved to an expensive apartment, where they had servants, and Mozart bought a piano from Anton Walter, the leading Viennese piano maker. They did not save anything, which did not help when they later fell on hard times.

It was an intensely fertile period for Mozart. He had finished his previous piano concerto, no 19, in December 1784. Piano Concerto No 20 in D minor, K 466, was completed on February 10, 1785, and was premiered the next day at the Mehlgrube concert hall in Vienna, with the composer as the soloist.

A few days later Mozart’s father Leopold wrote to his daughter Nannerl: ‘[I heard] an excellent new piano concerto by Wolfgang, on which the copyist was still at work [writing out the parts for the players in the orchestra] when we got here, and your brother didn’t even have time to play through the rondo because he had to oversee the copying operation.’

Less than one month later Mozart completed his next concerto, No 21.

Here is No 20 played by Seong-Jin Cho from South Korea in the 2011 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia when he was 17. He came third, so the others must have been pretty good. He is now 25 and a successful concert pianist. One of the reasons I chose this recording is that the conductor, Alexey Utkin, does not see himself as the star of the show – even using a pencil instead of a baton!

Fortunately for us, the year before he wrote this concerto, Mozart started keeping a diary or catalogue of his compositions. On the right hand pages are the opening notes and on the left the date of composition, its title and usually the instruments for which it was scored. This treasure is kept in the British Museum, and you can see it on the ‘Turning the Pages’ feature of their website. This concerto is the fourth item on pp 2 and 3 of the diary.

The complete autograph score is in the Musikverein (Music Association) in Vienna.

Here is the score of the first movement:  

The second:

And the third:

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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