The discreet charm of a late Mozart Rondo

I first heard this work live a few years ago, at a concert given by the American pianist and noted Mozart specialist Robert Levin, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Played on a fortepiano, whose relatively modest voice spoke so elegantly to the Queen Elizabeth Hall, from the opening measures I was completely hooked. The next day, I purchased the music and started to learn it, but for some reason, I never learnt it properly, and it was only when I had been having lessons with my current teacher for about six months, that I recalled that moody little Rondo, and decided to revisit it. I worked on the piece seriously for about six months, and after playing it for my teacher as a performance, she suggested I put it to bed for awhile and learn something else. I then revived the work for my LTCL: it was wonderful to be able to work on it in detail again, and I discovered all sorts of new things about it when I revisited it for a third time. It’s a piece that keeps surprising both listener and performer.

Composed in the spring of 1787, after Mozart returned from Prague, it has been suggested that its composition was in response to the news that one of the composer’s closest friends, Count August von Hatzfeld, had died, and may therefore be a rare example of a personal event in Mozart’s life prompting a composition. The piece is introspective and private, consistently freighted with melancholy and sadness, while exuding a thoughtful, measured elegance throughout. It is touching and beautiful, simple and perfect; but its deceptive transparency offers no place to hide. It requires great clarity and preciseness in order to express its overriding melancholy, and its poignant charm.

The Rondo theme is a pensive melody which looks forward to Chopin – and has been mistaken for Chopin by an unwary listener when I’ve played it. A rising theme, yet it hardly seems to move forward, and with each weary semitone step, there is a dying fall, almost sigh or a painful intake of breath, emphasised by the quaver rests. The dissonance, created by the first ornament (which reappears regularly throughout the piece) further enhances the sense of tragedy. I play this on the beat, so that it sounds with the first A in the left hand, and, momentarily, it hurts, as it is clearly meant to. Each reappearance of the theme is treated slightly differently, further emphasising its pathos and poignancy. The word “zal“, more often associated with the music of Chopin, seems entirely appropriate here, with its bittersweet melancholy, poetic shadings, plaintiveness and longing. The C major phrase is somewhat less painful, but it is hardly hopeful.

The first subsidiary theme (‘B’), beginning at bar 31, harks back to the Grand-daddy of them all, J S Bach, in its use of counterpoint and chromaticism, while the texture is suggestive of string quartets with its different melodic voices. The new theme pours forth, the mood more hopeful and consoling, with a lovely LH cello-line which is very different to the haunted bass of the opening melody. There’s an almost operatic grandeur through these measures, immediately dispelled when the music lurches unexpectedly into D-flat major at bar 46. The music creeps chromatically, recalling the opening theme, and, after an episode marked by plaintive descending and ascending chromatic figures, the earlier ‘B’ material returns, building to a climax in bar 59, marked by the octave figures in the LH. A greater, more full-toned climax at bar 63 is carried through to bar 69 with a grand, energetic arpeggiated figure in the RH. From bars 69-75, the long chromatic notes hark back, once again, to the chromaticism at the beginning of the piece, while from bars 74-80, the music seems hang in suspense in the dominant, in anticipation of the rondo theme, which returns at bar 81.

The second statement of the theme is stripped of its C major sentence, and is even more haunting, with its sobbing, breathless syncopations in bars 86-87, a kind of written rubato, which needs no additional increase or decrease in tempo in the bass line (prefiguring Chopin). The quaver rest in bar 88 can be lengthened in readiness for the A major section (“C”).

Now, we are in more familiar, comfortable territory, for here is Mozart at his most charming and elegant, before a brief shift into B minor, with dissonance created by the ornaments. A more hopeful D major passage (I read somewhere once that Mozart declared D major “the happiest key”) begins at bar 101, reprising some of the material from the A major interlude. At bar 116, the chromaticism in the bass again recalls the opening motif, leading into further chromatic surges and grinding diminished seventh harmonies. The thematic material of the opening is never really forgotten, thus further reminding us of the prevailing sense of sorrow.

At bar 129 the rondo theme returns in its original form, but with more elaborate ornamentation this time, tortured rather than decorative. There’s a real sense of desolation at bar 155, while the repeated A’s and chromaticism in bars 155-157, evoke almost a wailing, grief-laden lamentation.

The Coda, beginning at bar 163, heartbreakingly recapitulates all the elements that have gone before and all the motifs return in a grim, Bachian setting. It is highly emotional, mixing tragedy and frustration, with a final, whispered statement of the opening theme in the closing measures.

It is no accident that this piece is included in the diploma repertoire list, for it is both technically and musically challenging, and repertoire such as this reminds one that a musical performance diploma is a long way on from Grade 8: one is being assessed on one’s technical ability, musicality, maturity, conceptual understanding, stylistic awareness and stagecraft. From one’s programme choices to one’s dress, this is, in all sense, a ‘proper’ recital, leading to a recognised professional qualification.

More a Fantasia than a strict Rondo in the assemblage of its thematic material, the K511 offers many technical challenges, and, as stated earlier, requires absolute clarity in its delivery. Overly fussy playing will only obscure the deeply emotional nature of this work – and this, to me, is the real heart of it. Conveying that sense of melancholy, sadness and grief is the hardest part, while always maintaining honesty and fidelity to the score. For those of us whose early pianistic encounters were with the ‘boyhood’ works of Mozart, the pieces with the earliest ‘K’ numbers, jaunty little numbers, all smiling childish innocence and playfulness, the Rondo K511 represents a work of great maturity and life-experience.

The weekend after I heard Robert Levin perform the Rondo K511, I went to an OAE study day, at which Professor Levin spoke most eloquently and lengthily (he likes the sound of his own voice, but everything he said had value) about Mozart’s piano music. He demonstrated, through the use of excerpts, and, in the afternoon, a masterclass on the Piano Sonata K332, all the subtleties of Mozart’s music: its chiaroscuro, its many moods, some fleeting, passing in the space of a single bar, its storms and its sunshine. Too often, Mozart’s music is given a simplistic reading, but it is not for nothing that pianist Artur Schnabel pronounced the piano sonatas of Mozart “too easy for children, and too difficult for artists”, while Leonard Bernstein said, “Mozart combines serenity, melancholy, and tragic intensity into one great lyric improvisation”, a quotation which, to me, beautifully sums up the enduring fascination and appeal of the K511.

An afterthought:

I read a very useful and informative book while learning the Rondo last year – Mozart and the Pianist by Michael Davidson (London: Kahn & Averill, 1998), which provides helpful overviews and analysis of Mozart’s major solo piano works. I found it particularly useful in relation to the ornamentation in the K511: according to my Wiener Urtext Edition of the work, these were “written out” ornaments, as opposed to decorations left to the performer’s discretion.

My favourite recording of this work is by Mitsuko Uchida. I also like Ashkenazy’s reading: he places the turns before the beat, as I do (or had been doing!), something which generated an interesting and heated discussion with a pianist colleague, who feels such ornaments should be placed on the beat. This is, in the end, a matter of taste: there is no hard evidence that I could find in my research of this work of how Mozart intended the ornaments to be played.