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.
from notes by Timothy Jones © 2016
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