Early-19th-century Piano Concertos do not attract the attention of concert impresarios or record companies, although those by Hummel, Kuhlau and Weber make the occasional appearance. One might have thought that because of the fame of his father, Franz Xaver Mozart (1791-1844) would have obtained some advantage, but despite being respected in his day as a keyboard virtuoso and as a teacher his success as a composer has been modest.
Franz Xaver’s two Piano Concertos are excellently crafted – the first, composed at the age of 18, is scored in the same way as Beethoven’s except for clarinets. The agitated opening movement is supplemented by some purposeful wind writing and a clear melody is developed skilfully, though not extensively. In his booklet essay, the observant Richard Wigmore notes a reference to Wolfgang Amadeus’s D-major Violin Concerto (K218), but in context it is all part of the general flow. The central movement varies an expansive theme and it is unusual that the last variation is mainly orchestral. So far, the links with the composer’s father are not that evident but the very simplicity of the main theme harks back to those childlike melodies that Wolfgang Amadeus would sometimes use to round-off his Concertos.
The balance between piano and orchestra is managed superbly here – every answering phrase speaks lucidly – no doubt Howard Shelley being both soloist and conductor has much to do with this notable consistency. The cadenza is particularly concise – a confirmation of existing thematic material, not an extension of it.
Piano Concerto No.2 is more serious than its companion. Written eight years later (1818) the opening is notable for its extensive exposition with particularly noble use of trumpets and timpani. Shelley achieves a sense of melodic sweep, taking in his stride an interesting Franz Xaver characteristic where a melody in the right hand is supported by runs in the left. Perhaps this movement is as near as FX got to hinting at Beethoven. There are also darker hues and the replacement of oboes by clarinets stresses this quality. The structure of this Concerto is unusual but convincing; the first movement takes as long as the other two put together and the central Andante makes a big contrast – we are approaching the Romantic era. The Finale features an optimistic idea worthy of Hummel. Rich harmonics infuse the solo part and Shelley expounds this confident and comforting music with precision and the orchestra contributes in an equally shapely manner.
The Piano Concerto (published in 1796 if composed earlier) by Muzio Clementi (1752-1839) makes a suitable complement. Again there is a fairly full orchestra (no flutes or clarinets though). The opening movement is simpler than those of FX – virtuosity takes precedence over thematic development but the cadenza (presumably Clementi’s own) is very effective. There follows the charmingly labelled Adagio e cantabile con grand espressione which brings out Clementi’s gift for dramatic eloquence. Humour is found in the Finale. Its sense of joy is not lost on Shelley who subtly shades the quirky links between themes, and Clementi makes the orchestra sound grand, which enhances the cheerfulness.