Imagine for a moment that you are an internationally renowned concert pianist and that you have been engaged to play a Mozart concerto with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra. Your first run-through with the orchestra is taking place not in the privacy of an empty concert hall, but at a lunchtime concert before the Amsterdam public. Confident in your preparation and years of experience, you take your seat at the piano. The conductor raises his baton, gives the downbeat, and the orchestra begins to play… the wrong concerto!
That’s the sort of thing nightmares are made of, but it’s exactly what happened to Maria João Pires at a 1999 concert conducted by Riccardo Chailly. She was expecting to play Mozart’s Concerto No. 9 in E-flat, known as the “Jeunehomme”, but there was a miscommunication somewhere, and the orchestra launched into the Concerto No. 20 in D minor instead. Pires’ shock and dismay – and her remarkable recovery – were captured by a documentary film crew in this unforgettable clip:
This video was my introduction to this extraordinary work, and watching it, I was captivated by Pires and her playing. Certainly, the drama of her plight intensifies the drama of the beginning of this concerto, which is described elsewhere by Chailly as evoking “a feeling of nowhere, loneliness, and despair.” I couldn’t wait to hear the whole piece, and was delighted to find the video below, in which Pires plays with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Pierre Boulez.
One of the most rewarding aspects of this blog has been the new music I have been exposed to while writing it, and the extent to which that music has enriched my life. Nowhere is this more true than in the concerto presented here. I wrote in 2011 about how, with Mozart, I often feel like I’m on the outside looking in at a party to which everyone has been invited except me. I’m happy, and in some sense humbled, to report that with this concerto, the door to that party may finally have opened. I already have more Mozart in mind for future posts.
A note about the cadenzas: Numerous composers have written cadenzas for this concerto, including Brahms, Busoni, and Beethoven, who played this concerto himself and who wrote the two cadenzas performed here. They are, incidentally, the only cadenzas Beethoven ever wrote for a concerto composed by someone else. Pires had some interesting things to say about them in an interview with Wesley Horner:
Wesley Horner: Beethoven wrote the cadenzas that you will perform.
Maria João Pires: This is the important thing about this concerto for me. I think Beethoven wrote the cadenzas because he chose this as his favorite concerto for sure. It became so much of what he himself could identify with. The character of this concerto is so dark and strong and full of energy – very much like Beethoven. So I think the cadenzas are wonderful.
Wesley Horner: How does it change the concerto to have these cadenzas written by Beethoven?
Maria João Pires: It gives a support to the concerto. Beethoven could see exactly the character of the concerto. He loved it because he could also feel it himself, and he wrote the cadenzas that make it strong, this dark side.
Wesley Horner: And he was still able to perform at that point.
Maria João Pires: Exactly, yes, yes.
In the video that follows, the first movement cadenza begins at 11:38, and the third movement cadenza at 29:00.