MOZART SYMPHONIES AND PIANO CONCERTO
While the instrumentally-inclined critics of the nineteenth century praised Mozart’s later operas as symphonies-with-singers, a better understanding of their topical content now allows us to appreciate his symphonies as operas-with-instruments. Our program begins with a curtain-raiser that could easily have preceded an opera buffa (comic opera). Symphony No. 27 in G Major (1773) opens with four audience-silencing chords (an attack known as a premier coup d’archet) followed by spirited but harmonically unadventurous first theme played over a characteristic Trommelbass, the string equivalent of a timpani roll. The phrases are short and symmetrical, leading without digression to an elegantly simple two-voice minuet. Terse outbursts of triple-stop chords in the first violins agitated by suspenseful octaves in the seconds give the closing theme almost more gravity than the preceding material deserves. (The angry outbursts of the Count in The Marriage of Figaro come to mind.) The “development” section doesn’t develop any of the preceding themes but continues the juxtaposition of minuet and agitation later to be heard in the ballroom of Don Giovanni.
The second movement is a genteel serenade, graced by muted violins, pizzicato lower strings doubled and sometimes answered by paired flutes and horns. Phrase ends sigh with appoggiaturas (what I like to call “curtsy cadences”), and each section dissolves into wispy octaves followed by silence. The dreamlike state is momentarily broken by sudden passage in minor in which the winds and violas freeze in suspense, but it quickly dissipates. The final Presto takes the first four notes of the opening movement and sets them against a countersubject, as if starting a fugue. This procedure, however, known to Mozart’s listeners as a high or “learned” style, quickly devolves into the low style of the waltz. This kind of musical cross-dressing, frequently found in his comic operas, reflects Mozart’s keen sense of humor, in which serious themes are trivialized or vice versa.
If there is an archetype among Mozart’s twenty-seven concertos for piano and orchestra, Piano Concerto No. 23 would be a serious contender. Perfect in its proportions, formal clarity, and range of expression, it was completed while he was composing The Marriage of Figaro in the winter of 1785-86, though there is evidence that he had begun it a few years before. Its popular appeal was shared by the composer himself, who kept it in a personal stash of “compositions that I keep for myself or for a small circle of music lovers and connoisseurs (who promise not to let them out of their hands),” as he described it to the valet of his patron, Prince von Fürstenberg.
The concerto is distinctively scored for flute, two clarinets, two horns, and bassoon, comprising a woodwind choir collectively known as the Harmonie. Already in the ninth bar of the opening Allegro, Mozart sets them apart from the strings, lending the sonority of an al fresco serenade. In the development section, the harmonie engages in a dialogue with the solo piano, ultimately weaving a contrapuntal fabric around the piano’s rapid figuration that sounds more like Bach than Mozart. The rich sonority of the clarinets is complemented by the A major key in which they are built. The opening theme of the first movement, in fact, bears a resemblance the Clarinet Quintet he was to compose three years later. Mozart composed both the improvisatory cadenza leading to the recapitulation as well as the one Mr. Bezuidenhout will play at the close of the movement.
The Adagio is a melancholy siciliana in the unusual key of F-sharp minor, the only piece Mozart ever wrote in this key. This movement is pure Empfindsamkeit, the “sensitivity style” (or hypersensitivity style) of intimate personal emotions characterized by sigh figures, descending chromatic lines, and pregnant pauses. An arching second theme evokes a prolonged sigh, and the gentle rocking rhythm turns into a throbbing pizzicato passage before the theme vaporizes into nothingness.
The final Presto is an exuberant romp. One last excursion into F-sharp minor adds a note of Sturm und Drang, with plummeting figures in the piano answered by sighs in the woodwinds. But the bustling opera buffa finale of the coda, played over the mounting excitement of a drone bass, assures a happy ending.
Though Symphony No. 39 was the first of Mozart’s final three great symphonies written in the summer of 1788, it has very much been the “middle child” in comparison to No. 40 in G minor and No. 41, nicknamed “Jupiter.” As musicologist Neal Zaslaw posits, “Could it be that the kinds of ideas Mozart chose to explore in this work survive the translation from the lean, transparent sounds of eighteenth-century instruments to the powerful, opaque sounds of modern instruments less well than the more muscular ideas of the G-minor and ‘Jupiter’ symphonies?” Fortunately, this performance gives us the opportunity to decide. The conciseness characteristic of Symphony No. 27 has been expanded, the instrumental colors are more individuated, and the harmonic excursions more adventurous. Nonetheless, its topical content still speaks the same stylistic language. It opens with a grand French overture, with the majestic dotted rhythms and scalar flourishes (tirate) found in the overture to Don Giovanni. The Allegro is a gentle minuet in characteristic two-bar phrases, but the heroic transition to the second key is longer and ends with an abrupt repeated figure that will figure prominently in the development. The serene second key area separates the woodwind choir from the strings over a repeated bass—one of those “lean, transparent sounds” Zaslaw refers to.
The marked difference in the tone colors of period woodwinds is clearly apparent in the second movement. The strings alone introduce the theme of the rondo form, and after introducing themselves together as a choir, the winds resume their customary role of sustained harmony over the bold gestures of the strings, based on the dotted rhythm of the first bar of the rondo theme. But following a “Humoresque”-esque passage in the first violins, the winds become an operatic quartet of bassoon, two clarinets, and flutes.
This is the only one of Mozart’s symphonies without oboes—a rarity among most of his other orchestral works as well. This was his choice, not a necessity, and the resulting orchestral timbre is somewhat mellowed because of it. The two clarinets come to the fore in the rustic Trio of the otherwise stodgy Minuet, playing a real Alpine Ländler (a folkdance precursor of the waltz), complete with oom-pahs from the strings and horns. The theme of the Finale is one of animated exuberance, and the flute, clarinet, and bassoon keep up a lively conversation with the strings. Mozart gives a nod to Haydn’s wit when the development section comes to a screeching halt, as if everyone forgot which key they were headed for. This final movement bookends our operatic symphonic program, invoking the spirit of an opera buffa finale to match the buffa overture that opens Symphony No. 27.