Text of the booklet "W.A.Mozart OBOENSPITZE, volume 2 / ALEXEI UTKIN / HERMITAGE ORCHESTRA"
In the mid-18th century a composition bearing the name Sinfonia concertante captivated audiences at large public concerts in Paris, London and Mannheim. In many ways akin to a solo concerto, symphonies with the participation of a group of solo instruments were seen primarily as an alternative to the usual orchestral symphony – somewhat lighter in content, but far more virtuoso and showy by nature. The powerful, stirring sound of the orchestra (in which an important role was played by developed parts for wind instruments) was combined with sections that allowed the best European performers to demonstrate their mastery.
As things turned out, the wider public is familiar with only a few examples among many hundreds of 18th-century concertante symphonies. By a certain irony of fate, sometimes even the names of composers who were famous in their day for writing dozens of such symphonies have been practically forgotten, whereas Mozart’s sole surviving opus in this genre, the Sinfonia concertante in E flat major for violin and viola (KV 364), is traditionally an integral part of the classical repertoire. It sufficed for Mozart to make just one episodic application of the sinfonia concertante genre in order to eclipse his colleagues’ legacy for several centuries, although admittedly this work occupies an important place among his compositions.
The composer’s journey from Salzburg to Paris via Mannheim and back again (1777–79) proved a turning point in his life. It was accompanied by dramatic events on a personal level (the first time he really fell in love; the death of his mother; his unfulfilled ambition to find suitable employment in one of Europe’s musical capitals). In a professional sense this trip with its rich and vivid artistic impressions paved the way for Mozart’s first great works, both operatic and instrumental. Moreover, the Sinfonia concertante in E flat major paved the way for a whole series of masterpieces by the composer.
Mozart’s first sinfonia concertante (KV Anh. 9) was written in April 1778 for his Mannheim friends J.B. Wendling (flute), F. Ramm (oboe), G.W. Ritter (bassoon) and the Czech-born horn player G. Punto. However the Paris performance of this work, for which the composer cherished high expectations, had to be cancelled. The manuscript sold to Joseph Legros, the director of the Concert Spirituel, was somehow lost. Shortly afterwards Mozart tried several times to compose a sinfonia concertante but on each occasion circumstances forced him to abandon the attempt, leaving him with no more than ‘promising’ fragments (KV Anh. 56, KV Anhm 104). Only when he returned to Salzburg in 1779 did Mozart complete a composition in three movements.
Annoyed by all the genuine or feigned ill-wishers, Mozart swiftly presented a weighty and irrefutable argument: the brilliant, monumental orchestral exposition of the first movement. If only those Parisians could hear the solemn opening chords (heralding the overall character of the movement, Allegro maestoso), and the Mannheimers – the large and spectacular crescendo in the ‘spirited’ trill motif (more blindingly luminescent in the bright colours of E flat major, towards the end it suddenly changes to a majestic C minor tone)! Of course they would have appreciated the exquisitely colourful juxtaposition of orchestral groups in the second theme, for instance the charming dialogue of natural horns and oboes accompanied by string pizzicatos.
The soloists enter with a tender, graceful melody in a high register which marks an important boundary, and from this point we hear no more of the brilliant orchestral episodes comparable with the opening bars of the first movement. Lyrical themes in the soloists’ exposition, now joyous, proud and elegant, now bearing the seal of melancholy, lead to the minor tragedy at the beginning of the development. Here the orchestral trill in a minor key (first G, then C minor) takes on a distinctive, fateful tone. The heartfelt answer by the soloists sounds almost in silence; then a moving complaint gives way to a passionate and disturbing prayer. Obviously such ‘scenes’ owe their appearance to Mozart’s theatrical impressions of Paris, and most likely to his acquaintance with Gluck’s ‘reformist’ operas, although the chamber mode of expression and astonishing flexibility of intonation point to the only 18th-century composer capable of writing such music… In the second half of the development Mozart gives precedence to the soloists, who take turns in playing virtuoso passages (the long cadenza written by the composer becomes another triumph for the soloists).
The form of sinfonia concertante written by Mozart’s contemporaries was often restricted to two movements in quick tempo: obviously the audience at large public concerts was not always willing to concentrate and listen to slower music. Nonetheless Mozart wrote a slow central movement, the Andante.
Beneath the mysterious mantle of C minor, we follow Mozart on a fascinating and extraordinary journey. Enveloped in gloom, there is a moment when we no longer comprehend the sounds reverberating across this nocturnal quietude: is that the sound of our own footsteps, or the beating of our bewitched and lonely heart? We unhurriedly wend our way towards an unseen goal, through the woeful, agonising dissonances and ecstatic brilliance of the major-key episodes, until finally our footsteps fade altogether and the soloists’ tremulous and virtuous confession cuts across the silence.
In contrast, the subsequent Presto is written for the wider public. Here everything is designed to evoke a rapturous response: fast and energetic movement, the simplicity yet whimsicality of the principal themes, the virtuoso treatment of the solo parts and even the sudden and triumphal fanfare motifs towards the end. Also included are a few of the traditional ‘jokes’, playing games with the listeners. At the height of the merrymaking Mozart, not without rhetorical pathos, ‘promises’ them a modulation to the gloomy C minor.
After the Sinfonia concertante, C minor becomes one of the most important keys for Mozart. Although he used it infrequently, almost all his works written in this key are unrivalled masterpieces.
Mozart preferred to keep his inner thoughts hidden from the public gaze. Often we can only guess what external impulses gave rise to his compositions. This is the case, for example, with pieces that are well known in two different versions, such as the Serenade in C minor for Wind Instruments (KV 388) and the C minor String Quintet (KV 406/516b), works which long ago acquired the epithet ‘mysterious’.
The Serenade dates from the summer of 1782. To this work scholars usually attribute a short and rather obscure comment from a letter Mozart wrote to his father on July 27: ‘There was no other option: I had to write a Nacht Musique quickly, but only for a wind ensemble.’
At first we might assume this letter refers to a pressing and profitable commission from an unnamed person. Wealthy townspeople of this period loved to attend open-air performances of instrumental music on a fine evening. The ensemble of perfor-
mers, the number and character of the movements and their genre varied considerably, but one of the most popular and enduring forms of ensemble all over Europe was the Harmonie, which included 8 parts for wind instruments (2 parts each for oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon). This is what Mozart chose for his Serenade.
Yet our assumption hardly corresponds to the tragic tone and unusual seriousness of the piece (the four-movement cycle used by the composer is not at all characteristic for the ‘light music’ genre of this period). Even those who believe the doubtful legend about Mozart’s ‘impracticality’ find it hard to imagine how the composer could present his customer with such a ‘surprise’. Among several dozen such works that Mozart composed during his lifetime, the Serenade in C minor is a unique phenomenon.
July 27, 1782 falls between two other notable dates in Mozart’s biography: July 16 marked the Vienna premiere of the Singspiel Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, and on August 4 he married Constanze Weber. In the intervening period between these two events Mozart reluctantly composed a serenade for Salzburg that later became the Haffner Symphony, basked in success after the first few performances of his opera, and at the same time hurriedly arranged a popular work for wind ensemble (hoping to anticipate the ‘music pirates’ of the 18th century). Then, at what would seem an especially joyful period in his life, he laid aside his profitable commissions and hastily wrote a mournful composition in C minor.
Of course we shall never know what ignited these dark, frenzied, ‘nocturnal’ passions. Possibly the intrigues associated with the opera premiere, set in motion by the ill-wishers Mozart bitterly refers to in his letters, or the ambiguous attitude of the Emperor Joseph II to his work. But the most likely reason is the scandalous circumstances of his hasty marriage, which was surrounded by spiteful rumours and solemnised without the consent of his father… Like the heroes of Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, Wolfgang gains the hand of his beloved in spite of an unfavourable train of events.
The true story of ‘Constanze’s abduction’ really was dramatic, and the emotional anguish we occasionally hear expressed in the poignant Serenade bears no comparison to the profound and tender melancholy of the Andante from the Sinfonia concertante. The gloomy and fateful unisons of the first bars already contain the dissonant, heart-rending harmony that runs through the entire composition. In the stormy and dramatic first movement diminished harmonies loom from every phrase, emphasised to great effect. In the major-key Andante the dissonances remind us of their presence only infrequently, but each time this attracts our attention. During the first and last sections of the minuet, on the other hand, the diminished harmonies literally pierce the musical fabric.
Yet apparently not one complaint can be heard in Mozart’s composition. Enduring love’s torments becomes a true school of courage. Among the tempests of the first movement we can already observe decisive and determined rhythms, but the real transformation comes in the second half of the work. The outburst of emotion in the minuet submits to the iron discipline of rhythm and polyphony. In the finale, written in the form of variations, the sense of despair is curbed once and for all, and however agitated the passages may seem, they are ruled by the unbending will of a dance-like rhythm. The closing variation (Maggiore) brings no relief, but sheds a bright light in the darkness.
Hard to say why Mozart arranged the Serenade for string quintet in 1788. Did he feel the practical necessity to quickly add a third to two existing original compositions (the famous KV 515 and KV 516 quintets) for their publication by subscription? Did Mozart himself by this time deem his opus too serious for the Serenade genre? In any case, we can understand those who even today mourn the loss of the characteristic timbre of wind instruments in the 1788 version. This recording presents a transcription of the Quintet for oboe and string instruments, not as a compromise between two versions by the composer, but as a new reading of this classical masterpiece. Like the arrangement of the Sinfonia concertante for flute and oboe, this is a presentation of familiar music but with a new colour scheme, seen in a new light.
Roman Nassonov, translation by Patricia Donegan
Text of the booklet "W.A.Mozart OBOENSPITZE, volume 2 / ALEXEI UTKIN / HERMITAGE ORCHESTRA"