In fact one might have expected that the commission would hardly have inspired Mozart, who professed to dislike both solo instruments (there is no other work by Mozart featuring a harp) and had a low opinion of French musical taste. Yet he duly delivered the concerto, and thereby produced a work that has remained popular throughout the two succeeding centuries. (Works for flute and harp were later to become much more common than in Mozart’s time.) Some critics, it is true—such as Charles Rosen, in his book The Classical Style—have deplored the concerto as ‘hackwork’: though Rosen qualifies this by remarking ‘it is true that Mozart’s hackwork is a lesser composer’s inspiration, and his craftsmanship is significant even here’. In fact whatever Mozart felt about the two instruments individually, in combination they seem to have excited his imagination to produce music both blithe and sophisticated. Harp technique was not very far advanced in the late eighteenth century, and the instrument was often treated as a sort of plucked piano. To some extent this is also Mozart’s approach—especially in the patterns of five and ten notes that occur in all three movements (harpists are generally more comfortable with four-note and eight-note patterns)—but there are many places in the concerto where it is clear that the distinctive timbre and sonority of the harp was very much in his mind. The small orchestral forces (there are just two oboes, two horns, and strings) the concerto is well suited for the intimacy of salon performance.
Formally the work is almost a textbook example of an early Mozart concerto. At the outset the orchestra blithely introduces two contrasted themes (the second announced by the horn), which are then taken up by the soloists. As the movement progresses the soloists sometimes play with the orchestra, and sometimes form an unaccompanied duo while the orchestra is silent. Harp and flute have the melody and its accompaniment alternately, and are also often in counterpoint with each other, creating a charming dialogue. The formal development section is quite brief, leading to a full recapitulation, withspace for a cadenza, and a coda.
The exquisite slow movement, an Andantino in F major, is enriched in texture by the fact that the violas are divided throughout. The main subject, ushered in by the strings, beings in short phrases but these become longer, and the movement evolves as a set of increasingly florid variations on this opening theme, displaying the lyrical qualities of the two solo instruments against a sensitive orchestral backdrop. Mozart titled the finale ‘Rondeau’, perhaps in deference to his French flautist-patron, but also perhaps to signal the fact that this substantial movement is not quite a conventional rondo-finale. The form is an almost symmetrical seven-section one, A-B-C-D-C-B-A, with a cadenza before the final appearance of A, so that it is more like an arch-form that unwinds from its mid-point. Nevertheless traces of the ‘A’ section are to be heard in sections C and D, so the music seems in any case to honour the rondo principle of recurrence. Whatever the structure, the effect is the same—that of a joyous succession of memorable tunes.
from notes by Malcolm MacDonald © 2010
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