W.A. Mozart’s Rondo for Piano, KV 511

[Editor’s note: This is Beth Levin’s second brief essay on Mozart’s A-minor Rondo. The reader can find her first in our archive. Our contributing pianist’s return owes to her performance of the Rondo in Reykjavik, Iceland, on January 27, 2006 as an aspect of a festival commemorating the composer’s birth.]

Beth Levin

[January 2006.]

The opening melody ascends chromatically in A minor, soon falling to two-note slurs reminiscent of raindrops on a tea-house roof. Quick 32nds ornament the theme’s upbeat against a bass line’s oom-pah-pah. This simplicity of writing bespeaks a supreme delicacy in the company of a deep emotion revealed in the chromaticism’s pull and by the key itself — A minor. The performer works to seek a sound embodying both qualities: pathos and naïveté.

The key of C major prompts a mood change at measure 9. The identical bass line in this key is comedic, a taste of opera buffa. A true forte at measures 10 and 19 allows for a healthier, more direct expression until at measure 22 Mozart returns us to his original, fragile melody. More insistent ornamentation and triplets at the scale passages intensify the theme.

At measure 32 the music is less a melody with accompaniment than a development in three-part voicing. We have arrived at the B section of our Rondo form and will return to A shortly. It’s a lovely structure allowing Mozart to stray and play at invention before bringing us safely home. F major is our new context, with scale-like passages establishing the inner voice. These running 16th notes have a push-pull quality, a rising up and falling away that infuse the music with physicality. For instance, one descending chromatic fragment at measure 37 provides a hint of a plaintive sigh. Mozart repeats it again and again over the next few pages, often contrasted by driving 16th notes in forte. We discover ironies everywhere, the tragic cheek by jowl with the comic, dark with light, the physical with the spiritual. Mozart portrays life’s curious discontinuities in a matter of mere moments.

The transition back to section A at measure 81 reiterates the chromatic fragments so prevalent before. Written without rests, they topple one over another and thus lead us back to the theme. In finessing timings amid stretto, the performer successfully returns us to our starting position.

Section C marks the strongest departure yet. The key signature at measure 89 is clearly marked three sharps: A major. This simple change from minor to the major in A is nonetheless striking. Mozart appears to divert our focus from the portrait’s dark robes to its luminous face. C will be the final contrast to the theme: ABACA. The music becomes more intense. Triplets don’t let up, trills and turns increase, with modulations swiftly cavorting through a circle of keys. But precise articulation never retreats. The staccati two-note slurs, fortes and subito pianos — insects in a storm — are never submerged in this dramatic sweep. The paramount challenge may be to show the drama of the writing by way of the rhythm and momentum’s harmony, at the same time sustaining clarity of sound.

The final transition to the theme occurs within six measures (124-129) in groups of unwinding triplets, forte to piano to pianissimo. Arriving at an organic timing and proper sense of diminuendo is, again, the performer’s task. The last statement is special. After so much transformation, the theme takes on a fresh meaning. As if improvising, Mozart adds touches to the original — here a trill, there a fast spray in portamento.

At measure 156, these turns provide a breathless quality to the original material. At measure 163, the bass line surges. Finally, in closing the book, it is this bass line that all but swallows up what remains of a haunting melody.

[As before, Beth’s voyage inside a work leaves one anxious to try some CDs. ArkivMusic (http://www.arkivmusic.com/), a superb mail-order resource, shows 41 entries. Schnabel’s 6-4-46 studio version is variously coupled, in all-Mozart recitals or “the 1946-47 HMV solo recordings.” On midpriced RCA, Rubinstein’s 1959 rendition joins the Mozart piano quartets. Among the HIP discs, Colin Tilney’s fortepiano sparkles. I’d commend Christian Zacharias’ MDG account for its thoughtful program, splendid sound and potent playing — neither Romantic nor tinkly. W.M.]


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