By the time Mozart wrote Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major, K. 414 in 1782, hehad relinquished his Salzburg post for good, and moved to Vienna to seek his fortune as a freelance composer: a risky proposition in an era when not even the finest musicians were able to survive without noble patronage.
It is the second of three concertos (Nos. 11, 12 & 13) written in close succession after his arrival in Vienna, all of which were composed with a double purpose in mind; namely that they could also be played a quattro, with just piano and string quartet, thus expanding their performance possibilities. As such, all three are of more modest dimensions than the previous No. 10 – though their evolving musical substance points the way to Mozart’s later concertos. It’s worth noting that Mozart probably created all of his piano concertos for his own use. Given (by the standards of his day) his own supreme keyboard abilities, the resultant luxury of being able to write for himself helps to explain the consistent levels of virtuosity found in all of his mature concertos. These pieces were among the main fare offered to the admiring Viennese public in his Lenten concert series of 1783.
The opening movement begins with Mozart’s customary orchestral exposition of the primary themes, before the piano makes its appearance with the first of them. Again,
typical of Mozart, he wastes no time in spinning cunning keyboard elaborations of the theme while leading it in ingeniously divergent directions. As he develops this and the remaining themes, he never fails to surprise and delight at every turn. Contrast comes with a climactic minor-key modulation before returning to the opening
melody and finishing off with an exhilarating cadenza.
The following Andante movement – in the (then) rarely used key of D minor – is Mozart’s musical memorial to Johann Christian Bach (the most famous of JS Bach’s brilliant sons). Mozart considered him a mentor, having met and briefly worked with him as a youth during an earlier trip to London. The “London Bach” had passed away earlier in 1782, and Mozart based this movement on a theme from one of his overtures. In keeping with its elegiac purpose, the movement is uniformly moving and mournful: as lovely a tribute as anyone could wish for. But the scintillating final rondo, with its infectiously playful spirit, restores the concerto’s mostly sunny outlook.