A most unusual slow movement by Mozart

The Mozart concerto slow movement is known among musicians and music lovers alike to be a moment of serene lyricism, with a sense of spaciousness and unparalleled beauty. Some of these slow movements, like the Andante from the C major concerto, K. 467 (popularly known as Elvira Madigan) or the Adagio from the A major concerto, K. 488, have achieved iconic status. The unique beauty of these slow movements lies in their honest simplicity and nobility of character. In them, Mozart shows us the power and effect of the meagre means he employs. 

However, not all slow movements from Mozart concerti are as readily soothing as the two mentioned above. The concerto in G major, K. 453, dating from 1784, was written right after the work Mozart described as his very best, the quintet for keyboard and winds. Its outer movements are both elegant and jaunty, with the finale ending in a frenzy similar to that of a comic opera act. The middle movement, an Andante in C major, however, stands out in its austerity and near-severity. Contrary to what we would expect, its melody is obsessive and relies on a repeated note, something that on a keyboard instrument makes a cantabile character much less likely. The curveballs Mozart throws at us only begin there. After the orchestra introduces the unlikely theme, we hear an Eingang (improvised transition) in the fourth bar of the piano’s entry, something usually heard later in a slow movement, leaving us unprepared for the sudden shift to minor. This shift leaves us further surprised by a downward spiral through the cycle of fifths where the character frenetically changes with every drop until we end up in the least likely key for a C major movement, C-sharp minor, after which Mozart magically finds a way to revert to the tonic key. The concluding cadenza seems to take all these oddities and amplify them, in a section more reminiscent of Haydn than of Mozart. At times in the cadenza, the sounds seem to take a back seat while the pauses take charge of the movement, not unlike slow movements of many Haydn symphonies. 

The movement leaves us with a sense of introspection rather than the generosity of most slow movements of Mozart concerti. Mozart doesn’t “share his own self” with us through the music. Rather, he invites us to use the slow movement to look inwards, before hearing the festive and igneous finale. 

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