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Trevor Pinnock adds to his impressive Mozart discography with the composer's great wind masterpiece. The Serenade for thirteen wind instruments is performed here by the very best of the next generation of wind players, the Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble, and is coupled with a sublime Notturno by Mozart's mentor, Joseph Haydn.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
The fading of the light acquired rich cultural resonance in the eighteenth century. In Mozart’s operas, for example, twilight and darkness are more than simply the backdrop to key points in the action, but become integral to the thematic web of the drama. Don Giovanni’s nocturnal townscape is a place of concealment, mistaken identity, fear, violence and mortal danger, and a time of supernatural intervention in human affairs, made all the more strange and terrifying by its proximity to sumptuous partying and the mask of urbane hospitality. In contrast, night is a time of transgressive hope in Die Entführung aus dem Serail. The heroine Konstanze’s longed-for rescue is planned for the stroke of midnight. And out of the darkness and silence of the scene comes Pedrillo’s chivalrous romance ‘In Mohrenland’ whose musical otherness haunts the memory long after the gaudy glitter of the opera’s janissary music has passed. Most complex is the twilight garden setting of the final act of Le nozze di Figaro, where the social order of the household is blurred, identities shift, and in the shadows truths are spoken and recognized which could not be voiced or acknowledged in the light of day. Of course, the forgiveness and reconciliation to which this leads are provisional. But the beauties of the dusk and the music sustain a utopia made all the more poignant because it is fleeting.
Pastoral idylls like Figaro’s carried a special charge because they were designed for the entertainment of an urban elite. During the eighteenth century the status and purpose of public entertainment underwent a gradual transformation from a frivolous diversion, a turning away from the serious business of life, to a savouring of play and pleasure which was an elevated good in and of itself. In his 1805 essay celebrating the centenary of the great art historian and critic Winckelmann, Goethe expressed this new aesthetic stance in transcendent terms:
When the healthy nature of man operates as a single whole, when he feels the world around him as a grand, beautiful, worthy, and precious whole, when harmonious contentment grants him a pure, free pleasure—then the universe, if it could perceive itself, would cry out as having arrived at its goal and would admire the pinnacle of its own growth and essence. For what is the point of all the expenditure of suns and planets and moons, of stars and Milky Ways, of comets and galactic nebulae, of worlds born and yet to be born, if at the end a happy human being cannot rejoice in his being.
‘Pure, free pleasure’ granted by ‘harmonious contentment’ neatly encapsulates the artistic values of the musical genres wherein the crepuscular and the entertaining met in the eighteenth century: the serenade and the notturno. Both genres had originally developed in vocal music—to be performed at night and with texts alluding to the night, but by the 1780s their names had been appropriated by musicians in Italy and Germany to describe instrumental music, often performed out of doors, in the hours of darkness. The serenade was an evening entertainment (with some writers suggesting a 9pm performance as most appropriate) while the notturno was customarily performed later (between 11pm and midnight).
Mozart’s ‘Gran Partita’
Serenades for groups of wind instruments were especially popular in Bohemia and southern Germany in the 1780s, due not least to the high standards of wind playing in those regions and to the relatively low costs to aristocrats of maintaining a wind band as their domestic ensemble. The peaks of this repertoire are the three wind serenades Mozart wrote in Vienna in the early 1780s. But the precise circumstances of the composition of the greatest of these—Mozart’s largest and arguably his most innovative instrumental work, the Serenade in B flat major, K361 ‘Gran Partita’—is occluded in shadow. Its date is uncertain. It is not an uncontested fact that Mozart conceived its seven movements as a unified work. And the biggest puzzle is what might have prompted the composer to smash the decorum of generic and ensemble conventions so flamboyantly. Given its size and importance, it is surprising that the piece is not mentioned in Mozart’s surviving correspondence. And there is no entry for it in his Catalogue of all my Works (though this absence might help us narrow down the plausible window for the work’s date). What evidence we do have—an autograph manuscript, some ambiguous newspaper reports, and uncorroborated posthumous testimonies—only deepens the mystery by pointing in contradictory directions.
The presence of excellent wind players in Vienna, especially those clarinet and basset horn virtuosi the Stadler brothers, may have been a fundamental prompt to Mozart’s imagination; but it was only one among many factors, including the composer’s encounter with the wind writing of his older contemporaries (especially J C Bach and Christian Cannabich) and his earlier opportunities to write for virtuoso wind players (for example, in Idomeneo of 1780). Another crucial element, particularly in relation to the scale of the work, was the markedly competitive streak in Mozart’s compositional projects during his early Viennese career. The ‘Haydn’ Quartets, the piano concertos and Die Entführung aus dem Serail all deliberately set out to confront and surpass the achievements of Mozart’s leading contemporaries, and the ‘Gran Partita’ ought to be seen as another part of this large pattern. Another significant part of the background to this work was the Salzburg serenade tradition that Mozart had just left behind: one that prized discursiveness, variety and instrumental colour, and which was not renowned for pithy utterance. All this might support what the paper types of the Serenade’s autograph manuscript suggest: that Mozart wrote the piece shortly after he arrived in Vienna in 1781. There is no evidence that the composer ever heard the piece in its entirety, though it is likely that four of its movements were publicly performed in Vienna in 1784.
In some respects the ‘Gran Partita’ is two pieces for the price of one. Its monumental first movement is followed by two contrasting examples of each type of symphonic movement: two slow movements (the operatic-ensemble-like ‘Adagio’, third movement, and the tripartite ‘Romanze’, fifth movement), two ‘Minuets’ (second and fourth movements, each with trios), and two finale types (the theme and variations, sixth movement, and the ‘Turkish’ style ‘Rondo’, seventh movement). The musical ambition of the entire work is proclaimed at the start, with the full sonority of the first four notes answered by an expressive, sweet phrase on a solo clarinet. Immediately the music’s driving principles are sonority, colour, texture, concertante effects, the juxtaposition of contrasting styles, and the mutability of musical ideas.
This is not one of Mozart’s most learnèd scores—he didn’t set out to dazzle with contrapuntal display or formal complexity—but its sensuousness and variety are unsurpassed. The tinta of the piece comes not only from the rich possibilities of different colour combinations within a thirteen-part tutti, but also from the preponderance of instruments whose centre of gravity is in the alto and tenor registers: the pairs of clarinets, basset horns, bassoons and the four horns. This enabled Mozart to include subtly differentiated dark sonorities in the Serenade’s textures, imagining in musical terms the changing half-light of the closing day: whether the second movement’s trio with the clarinets and basset horns, the bassoon writing in its second trio, the accompaniment of the operatic dialogue in the ‘Adagio’ third movement, or—perhaps the work’s most breathtaking sonority—the sustained pianissimo chord towards the end of the ‘Adagio’ variation in the sixth movement, where Mozart came as close as he ever would to making time stand still in perfect felicity.
Haydn’s Neapolitan music Anglicized
Haydn’s Notturno No 8 in G major, Hob II:27, belongs to a set of nine works written between 1788 and 1790 for Ferdinand IV of Naples. In their original form these notturni were for an ensemble which, like the ‘Gran Partita’, emphasized delicate alto sonorities: two clarinets in C, two violas, two horns, a ‘basso’, and two lire organizzate. The lira organizzata, a favourite of King Ferdinand, is a hybrid instrument combining features of the hurdy-gurdy and the organ. In its disembodied vocality, the lira’s unique sound is as enchanting, otherworldly and uncanny as that other eighteenth-century musical curio, the glass harmonica. Haydn took his new notturni to London in his first visit of 1791–2; but, aside from the impossibility of sourcing lire organizzate, the private, late-night context of the works’ Neapolitan origins could hardly be replicated in the large concert spaces at Haydn’s disposal in the English capital. So Haydn rescored the pieces, replacing the lire and clarinets with flute, oboe and violins respectively. In doing so, he let the daylight back into the music.
The Notturno has all the scintillating argumentativeness and wit that one might expect of mature Haydn. Its outer movements, in particular, occupy a niche between the conversational style of Haydn’s contemporary string quartets and the grand public statements of his ‘London’ Symphonies. The central ‘Adagio’ is one of his sublime ternary-form inspirations, with a particularly muted minore section in the middle. In the fragility of its textures, which often diminish into just two voices, the ‘Adagio’ looks back to the delicate symphonic slow movements so characteristic of Haydn in the early 1770s. And in its London version the ghostly nostalgia which ought to have permeated the midnight performances in Naples still echoes through the new scoring. But energetic comedy has the last word. The ‘hunting’ ‘Finale’ certainly brings a smile to the face, but repose? It must have been hard to get off to sleep after this.
Timothy Jones © 2016