Notes and Editorial Reviews
This collection from Warner Classics is a marvellous 16 disc set of his chamber music; not all of it but enough to reveal the wonders of works written between 1772 and 1790, in other words aged 16 to 34. They include a handful of popular compositions such as a refined and thoughtful performance of Eine kleine Nachtmusik, under Nikolaus Harnoncourt directing his Concentus musicus string ensemble of Vienna. Full of ideas, highly detailed in phrasing on authentic instruments with brittle-toned string sound and ‘squeezed’ long notes, tempi for the middle movements are questionably brisk, the trio begins with exaggerated anacruses (upbeats) and proceeds in a mannered fashion. The first movement is what we are used to hearing, the finale slightly
slower. While the playing is clean and impeccably detailed, it all boils down to whether one likes Harnoncourt’s interpretation or not. Certainly his group’s playing - with added pair of horns - of the Musical Joke (K.522) brings out Mozart’s wonderful sense of musical horseplay. Here he caricatures his fellow Viennese composers, their distinctly dull musical material, coarse lack of inspiration and inept technical facility, all diametrically the opposite of his own genius. The second movement - an extended minuet and unusually the longest of the four movements - says it all with its puffed up pomposity and wrong note music (resulting in dual tonality) in the distant horns. This is followed by a completely different ‘trio’ with its demanding, florid violin solo. The third movement has sudden changes of dynamics, thus destroying the opening reflective mood, while the rollicking finale parodies pretty well all that has gone before as well as the art of producing counterpoint according to the strict rules. Harnoncourt and his players see the funny side, and will make you smile to the truly revolting last chords.
Mozart’s five piano trios (i.e. for the combination of violin and cello with piano) are pure joy, especially the irresistible finale to K.564. They were written at a time when the composer was reaching his full musical maturity between the two years 1786 and 1788, which produced the three great operas Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte and the final four symphonies, Prague to Jupiter. The trios are notable for their musical sophistication, and are by no means to be dismissed as lightweight works. I recommend listening to disc 3 where K.564 is followed by the second Piano Quartet K.493, the added viola highlighting the thickening change of texture caused by the additional instrument. The Trio Fontenay give glittering accounts of these trios, with distinctly fine piano playing from Wolf Harden, while Dezsö Ránki blends stylishly with members of the Eder Quartet in K.493. Mozart’s approach in this latter work - he only wrote two piano quartets, either side of Figaro in 1785 and 1786, and this is the second - is one of novel freshness. The finale Rondo (after a pivotal and melodically rich Larghetto) is seemingly the most innovative movement, in which the piano is heard as an equal partner to the other three instruments. Possibly it was because the public found the composer’s two piano quartets hard to listen to - they wanted music you could chat to, and not music that made you think - that he took that combination no further.
K.254 (1776) raises an interesting question. Why is it called a divertimento, when clearly it is a piano trio? Actually it is more of a violin sonata, for the cello has just four bars (in the Rondo finale) where it is independent of the piano’s left hand. Only with the trio K.496 does the cello take a part in the dialogue. The sixth trio K.498 has novel scoring of piano, viola and clarinet (Bruch cleverly scored his Eight Pieces Op.83 for the same combination to get them into chamber music recital programmes alongside Mozart’s work). It was written for Francisca, pianist daughter of the Jacquin family, for clarinettist Anton Stadler (for whom he also wrote the clarinet quintet and concerto. Mozart himself was a fine violist and consequently wrote a technically challenging part. It is known as the Kegelstatt because Mozart allegedly wrote it while playing ninepins, though there is no evidence for this, nor the even more apocryphal story that he composed Don Giovanni while indulging in the same pastime. Because the words ‘during ninepins’ appear in the autograph of a wind duet (K.487, not included in this box), perhaps this amazing fact was subsequently exaggerated to include works of more substance. Whatever the truth of the matter, the performance here is notable for using Mozart’s own fortepiano made by Anton Walter about 1780, and possibly his own viola, made by Carlo Testore of Milan, both lovingly played (understandably so) by András Schiff and Erich Höbarth respectively. The result is distinctive, colourful and revealing. Listening to so much of Mozart’s marvellous chamber music as presented here, the words of Einstein (musicologist Alfred that is, not Albert of e=mc²) about the finale of the Kegelstatt trio, ‘The last word music can utter as an expression of the feeling of form is here spoken’, are more than appropriate.
While the glorious quintet for piano and winds (K.452) is not included - and should have been, for, as he wrote to his father Leopold on 10 April 1784, ‘it’s the best work I have ever composed’ - those for clarinet and horn respectively are. Describing Mozart’s music one soon runs out of superlatives, try sublime for the horn quintet and its especial scoring of one violin, two violas and cello as partners. David Pyatt makes easy work of this charming three-movement music, especially its tricky vivacious rondo-finale, in a performance with secure top concert E flats ringing out with bell-like clarity. The Berlin Soloists recorded the clarinet quintet in the rather over-resonant acoustics of the Max Joseph Saal in the Residenz, Munich, but nevertheless it is a tenderly phrased and endearingly played account of a glorious work.
String quartets are represented by ten mature ones (Nos. 14-23) starting with the Spring and including the Dissonance. It was Haydn with his Op.33 quartets of 1782 who inspired Mozart to write six of his own in honour of his older colleague and friend, describing them as ‘the fruits of a long and laborious endeavour’ rather than in response to any patronage. K.499 stands alone, for it was written just after Figaro, and commissioned by and then named after its publisher Hoffmeister. Three years later he wrote his last three quartets, known as the Prussian quartets because they are dedicated to the cello-playing Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm, and so the cello part often takes centre-stage - for example in the trio of K.575. All ten are in the safe hands of the Alban Berg Quartet, who give idiomatic accounts recorded in the generously warm ambience of Vienna’s Casino Zögernitz over eighteen months in 1977-1978. This is chamber music at its best, with immaculate interplay between all four musicians, notably in the fugal finale of K.387 and the trio of K.421. Then there’s the wonderfully shaped unison start of K.428, which sounds so chromatically troubled, and the joyous opening of K.458, the so-called Hunt quartet. If Mozart’s occupation of the key-realm of D minor produced dark, dramatic music (such as K.421, the piano concerto K.466 and the Requiem), it is also true that A major is a quantum leap away on the emotional scale. Like another piano concerto in A major (K.488), K.464 has many sunny moments despite its pensive ending. Indeed the second group of three Haydn quartets are distinctly lighter than the first half; that is once the listener has emerged through the confused chromaticism of the opening of K.465 the so-called Dissonance quartet, about which many a pen has been put to paper. Like Beethoven’s last quartets, both composers were years ahead of their time. This miraculous music is expertly played. That Mozart was enjoying an outstanding period of creativity in 1786 shines through in the Hoffmeister quartet; all was going well, including health, happiness and even wealth, but all of which was snatched from him by fate within five years. Even so the two remaining Prussian quartets have plenty of sunny moments which seem to give lie to such developments, while cellist Valentin Erben makes the most of impersonating Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm in K.575’s trio. Mozart bids farewell to the string quartet with the finale of K.590, a vivacious allegro, and played here with vigour and impeccably attentive care by these fine players.
There are no fewer than eighteen divertimenti, three of them for strings. We are back to the authentic world of string playing with K.136, and I must confess to an aversion to this stringy, squeezed first violin line which dominates this style of playing. Like nuclear weapons, one cannot un-invent vibrato, and I miss it after a short while. The remaining fifteen divertimenti are for winds with no flutes, though a pair of cor anglais appear in K.186, while the five works constituting K.439b (each of them having five movements often due to a second minuet) are for three basset horns. This was an instrument Mozart loved but because by the turn of the nineteenth century instruments and players were becoming rare, alternative versions (for a pair of clarinets and a bassoon) became necessary. These compositions were designed to delight, amuse and entertain, which they do in spades throughout. After the unison two bars of the opening of the fourth of the K.439b set (CD15 track 6), there is a striking quote from the opening of the finale to the Jupiter symphony, the famous four notes CDFE, and it comes as no surprise to discover that both works were written in 1788. The fifth divertimento (and also the third movement of K.252) has an unusual finale, a Polonaise.
The richly scored Gran Partita for thirteen instruments K.361, surely the pinnacle of Mozart’s wind music, is played brilliantly, all carefully tuned and producing a blend of rich textures. A contrabassoon is usually included, notwithstanding that Mozart calls for a double bass and happily this set respects his wishes. The early non-traditional seven-movement Antretter serenade is full of fun in this performance. Flutes are included in this fully symphonic work, which was commissioned by Judas Antretter to mark his success in the final examination of his academic studies at Salzburg. Some of this wind music rises above the social purposes for which they were usually designed, particularly the intense C minor serenade K.388, and consequently it becomes chamber rather than outdoor music. Which leaves all the rest of the wind divertimenti, the various serenades, including the symphonic Haffner, and the enchantingly novel Serenata notturna for strings, trumpets and timpani. In these, and in the other performances of the Wind Soloists of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, whether in the lightweight earlier works or in the more profoundly challenging later compositions, are full of felicitous touches (lovely oboe playing in K.196e for example) and carefully blended sounds. We need no anniversary excuses to hear Mozart, for no ear ever tires of this genius.
– MusicWeb International (Christopher Fifield) Read less
Works on This Recording
Work(s) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
András Schiff (Piano),
Dezsö Ránki (Piano)
Vienna Concentus Musicus,
Alban Berg String Quartet,
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra
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