1786: Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major

SATURDAY, August 22, 2020 – 8:12 AM

A huge part of loving any piece of music, or not caring, or even hating it is about when you listen. Are you relaxed? Rested? Are you in a quiet mood? I was working on writing jazz minor scales, figuring out the fingerings and why students find them hard to play. I went to bed very tired and felt too tired to even think about more music. Suddenly I woke up with the famous slow movement of this concerto playing in my mind. I have something pretty close to perfect pitch, and so I was thinking of the F# jazz minor scale, which is very tricky to play. And suddenly here was this piece, playing in my mind: F# G# A B C# D# E# F#. I’m better at music than numbers. I knew I had put it here, so I had to think: What concerto is that? I knew it was Mozart. Then I figured it was  either in Bb major or A major, first movement. Then I had it. I came to my computer, found it, and suddenly I was interested in how different it sounds played by different people.

Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, age 30

This is a very unusual Mozart concerto because although it is written in major, it flips to minor for the second movement. I really want you to listen to the slow movement first. Try experiencing that darker and more thoughtful mood first, then listen to the whole concerto, if possible to notice how important that switch is. That switch only happens five times in all 27 concertos, and it never happens – EVER – in the symphonies or pianos sonatas.

First, the really famous, sad slow 2nd movement:

Here are three artists, one very old, the next younger, and the final one quite young. Listen to a little bit of each, then if you have a strong feeling of liking one better than the others, listen to the whole movement. Be sure to tell me which one you like best. There is no right answer. If you do prefer one, you probably won’t know why. It will just resonate with you. That’s the magic of music.

The second, slow movement in F# minor, Horowitz

The second, slow movement in F# minor, Perahia

The second, slow movement in F# minor, Trifonov

Now, from the beginning:

From the beginning, Horowitz

From the beginning, Perahia

From the beginning,  Trifonov

And now the rest of the story…

It was finished, according to Mozart’s own catalogue, on March 2, 1786, two months prior to the premiere of his opera, Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). Supposedly the next concerto was completed less than a month later, so Mozart was only 30 years old. He only lived to the age of 35.

He was a fast worker…

Obviously he worked on several things at the same time, but he finished things astonishingly fast, unlike Beethoven who struggled and revised things for years. Things were easy for Mozart. He was easily one of the most intelligent composers who ever lived, something that obviously did not make him any smarter managing his life, but that’s another matter for another time.

Premiere by Mozart?

We think so, since no one his age played as well, and his concertos were mostly – and perhaps entirely – written as performance vehicles for himself. So usually he premiered his own piano music, but always remember that the piano he played on was a very different instrument from what we hear today.


Piano solo, one flute, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns and strings. It’s a smaller ensemble. No trumpets, no oboes, only one flute, no timpani. The music is quite intimate. The slow movement is one of the most beautiful ever written, Mozart at his absolute best.


And now about the players:

Vladimir Horowitz…

His video is famous, but also infamous. He was either well over 80 years old here. There are those who hate his playing in Mozart, saying that it is not polished and understated enough, and too harsh. The idea is that Mozart somehow was “spiritual”, or his music was. For me this absolute contradicts both reason and intuition, because Mozart was a free spirit and in all ways an outrageous rule breaker. There are things about this performance I really like, and some things I do not. I think the slow movement sounds a bit rushed. But I like the energy in the outer movements. To me the last movement has more energy and is more extroverted. It has more bite. I think most people play Mozart in a manner that is too polite. Mozart was not polite. The man was barely civilized. He was outrageous, untamed and controversial.

Murray Perahia

He’s now pretty old, a year older than I am, but I believe he was quite a bit younger during the recording I linked to here. He worked with Horowitz and knew him well. But like all really fine players, he just sounds like himself. His slow movement is the slowest. Maybe the rest of the concerto is a bit too gentle for my taste, but not the slow movement. When I listen to him play it, time stops.

Daniil Trifonov

Watching him annoys me. He’s another young player who makes faces. He looks like he has really bad gas, or constipation. He’s going to have back problems. His posture is terrible. But the wonderful thing about music is that you don’t have to watch. You can just close your eyes and listen, even if you are watching a live performance. And his playing, what we hear, is really special. He also has a huge virtuoso technique, so for me his sensitivity in this is surprising. I can put up with the theatrics because the actual playing is so good. I may like his total performance the best, but I’m not sure. All three are great.


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