A total of 27 piano concertos have been attributed to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The first few are just piano sonatas by other composers arranged as concertos by the wunderkind, but the later concertos are among the supreme instrumental works of not only Mozart, but also the entire piano concerto genre as we know it from the latter third of the 18th century.
In 1781 Mozart settled in Vienna permanently. Having had constant disagreements with his Salzburg employer Archbishop Colloredo, he stepped down from his post and began making a living mostly by teaching the children of noble families and giving subscription concerts. Royalties from his compositions made up an additional part of his income. Mozart expected that after moving to Vienna, he would achieve artistic success and commensurate compensation, meaning a livelihood. He began enjoying artistic success very quickly with the premiere of the singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail in the summer of 1782. However, Mozart was never able to achieve complete financial stability. Nonetheless, his early years in Vienna were some of his most fruitful. This was thanks both to commissions from the court and to the successful subscriptions concert, at which Mozart appeared as the composer, presenter, and performer.
At one of those concerts in April 1786 at Vienna’s Burgtheatre he played his Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, the next to last of the 12 concerts Mozart wrote between 1784 and 1786. Mozart seldom composed in minor keys, and some scholars believe that whenever he did so, he had something important weighing on his heart. This may be why these works are still especially important in Mozart’s oeuvre and enjoy great popularity. While the two symphonies in G minor (K 183 from 1773 and K 550 from 15 years later) are probably Mozart’s reaction to the ideas of the Sturm und Drang movement, in the piano concertos in D minor and C minor, the composer’s sense of musical drama bubbled to the surface, as it was fully revealed in his late operas and especially in Don Giovanni. In the Piano Concerto in C Minor, it is not only the unusual key that makes the concerto one of Mozart’s greatest. Also worth noting are the prominent woodwind parts, which emerge from the sound of the whole ensemble in dialogues with the piano and in solo passages. In Vienna, where there was no lack of good players and high quality instruments, Mozart could even afford to include clarinets and oboes in the orchestra at the same time. That combination, unusual in those days, opened up new possibilities, resulting in an extraordinarily rich palette of colours.
At first glance, this instrumental concerto in the standard three movements is a typical example of how special Mozart was as a composer. His talent does not consist solely of nearly inexhaustible melodic inventiveness, but also of masterful handling of concrete musical forms. He is able to do this fully while also enhancing the forms with little compositional details, thereby disturbing the form and avoiding a merely schematic approach. The Piano Concerto in C Minor contains many such moments. For example, the 3/4 metre of the Allegro first movement is unusual. The orchestral exposition presents the main theme, while already giving the wind instruments prominence as they pass a descending chromatic motif back and forth. Contrary to expectations, the piano’s solo entrance does not repeat the main theme from the orchestral exposition, but instead introduces new melodic material. Not literally a contrast, the material’s character brings only partial calming, as the serious mood continues to penetrate to the surface with the entrances of the full orchestra. The ending of the first movement also makes an unexpected effect; after the solo cadenza, the coda, somewhat unexpectedly, is not played by the orchestra alone—the solo piano joins in, dying away to pianissimo with a sequence of arpeggios to end the movement. The second movement, Larghetto, is in E flat major, and it is brighter in mood. The atmosphere is calm, and cantabile motifs emerge in the piano part as well as in the woodwinds. The virtuosic third movement (Allegretto) brings back the serious C minor mood. Mozart chose the form of variations, two of which are in the major mode, recalling the lyricism of the previous movement. Like in the first movement, however, the coda returns to the principal minor key, but this time, instead of dying away, the music comes to a dramatic, decisive end.