Piano Concertos by Mozart and Salieri from 1773

To my surprise… I find the Salieri C Major concerto to be the equal of Mozart's D Major.

Mozart, Piano Concerto no. 5 in D
Salieri, Piano Concertos in C and B-flat

Mozart's piano concertos are my favorite music. My favorite music of all music — especially the last 12 or 14 of the twenty-seven he wrote, together with no. 9 in E-flat, the Jeunehomme. Mozart came closer than any other composer to balancing form and function in music, to resolving the conflicting demands of the subjective and the objective in art. That's what's distinctive about his best work, and I think we hear it in the piano concertos more so than in any other genre — more than in his operas, his symphonies, or his chamber music, for as sublime as they are.

Mozart is best known to popular culture through Milos Forman's film Amadeus — a modern recreation of Pushkin's 1830 play, Mozart and Salieri. A good drama needs an antagonist, so these dramas quite falsely transform Salieri into Mozart's rival and murderer. (I addressed this in an earlier blog post: Amadeus and Moneyball.) Not only that, but in Forman's film, Salieri is portrayed as a barely competent hack, if he's portrayed as competent at all. This, of course, is to make Mozart seem that much more ingenious by comparison. But even if it's fair to say that Mozart was twice the composer Salieri was, Salieri was nevertheless a proficient craftsman, and at his best a fine composer.

Salieri was also six years older than Mozart, so there was a brief period in the 1770's when he was writing the music of his early maturity, while Mozart was still somewhere in-between child prodigy juvenelia and his mature mastery. Our A Year in Classical Music project provides a good case study for those years. In 1773, the 23 year old Salieri composed two piano concertos: one in C Major, and another in B-flat. That same year, the 17 year old Mozart composed his Piano Concerto no. 5 in D — his first serious effort in the genre, following the four apprentice piano concertos his father had guided him through seven years earlier. So, then: how do Salieri's concertos of 1773 compare to Mozart's?

I compared Robert Levin's recording of the Mozart to Andreas Staier's recording of Salieri's. To my surprise, being the ardent fan of the Mozart piano concertos that I am, I find the Salieri C Major concerto to be the equal of Mozart's D Major. Here's how I would grade the three works:

Salieri, Piano Concerto in C: B+
Mozart, Piano Concerto in D: B+
Salieri, Piano Concerto in B-flat: C+

Comparing the Mozart to the Salieri C Major, I give Mozart's first movement a slight edge over Salieri's — but only slight. When it comes to dazzling, virtuosic scales and passagework Salieri can't match Mozart, who creates such elegantly shaped and perfectly proportioned lines with such material, he can support lengthy passages of his sonata forms with them. The passagework in Salieri's first movement is more workmanlike, and the groups of phrases he builds out of it present only half-formed ideas at times; not being the performing virtuoso Mozart was, it's evident to me that Salieri wasn't entirely sure what to do with this component of concerto writing. Even so, Salieri offers greater expressive range, more contrast than Mozart does. He's more thoughtful, where Mozart is lighthearted and playful. The full chords with which Salieri's soloist makes his entrance suggest Beethoven more so than Mozart, and Staier gives us the full Beethovinian treatment with his cadenza.

Salieri is much better than Mozart in the slow movement. Mozart's G Major Andante is well-constructed and graceful and very pretty, of course, but it strikes me as a bit perfunctory and uninspired — especially when heard alongside Salieri's incredible A Minor Larghetto. Salieri employs full operatic drama here, summoning the intensity we associate with the slow movements of Mozart's later, Vienna-period piano concertos. He's is 4 or 5 years ahead of Mozart with this Larghetto: the Salzburg wunderkind wouldn't bring this degree of expressive ambition to a concertante middle movement until the later 1770's: the "Jeunehomme" Piano Concerto no. 9 of 1777, the Sinfonia Concertante of 1779.

In the final movements the Mozart D Major and Salieri C Major concertos, it's a close call. Mozart offers a theme and variations movement. He doesn't venture beyond cheerful, understated, early Classicist expression here — the ethos of Stamitz and J.C. Bach — but his writing within those narrow boundaries is clever, inventive, masterful. Mozart draws a markedly different effect from his theme with each variation, and the dialogue between piano and orchestra is marvelous. Salieri again offers greater urgency and depth of expression with his final movement, and the passagework for the soloist is more effective here than in his opening movement. His finale is more soulful than Mozart's, but Mozart's is more imaginative, and flawlessly constructed. So, advantage Mozart.

That gives Mozart the edge in two of three movements, but even so, Salieri's incredible middle movement — the poignant, delightful suprise on Staier's album, by itself worth the purchase price — makes enough of an impression on me to declare a tie between the two pieces. 

Salieri is less successful with his meandering Piano Concerto in B-flat. Like the C Major its strength is the middle movement, which allowed the opera composer to write an aria — a form he understood and felt confident with — without words. Opera was what Salieri knew and could write well. He hadn't been groomed from early childhood as a pianist, violinist, and symphonist like Mozart had. But even if he falls short with his B-flat concerto, tip your hat to him for producing in his C major a piano concerto more or less the equal of Mozart's in '73. It's something that didn't come as easily to him as it did to Mozart; he rose to the occasion.

(A final note: keep to Staier's performances of Salieri and avoid Pietro Spada, who plays too slowly and saps the music of its vitality.)

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