INKPOT#90 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: MOZART Gran Partita – An Inktroduction with Recommendations

INKPOT#90 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: MOZART Gran Partita – An Inktroduction with Recommendations

Wolfgang Amadeus

Serenade No. 10 in B-flat, KV361
“Gran Partita”
I. Largo – Allegro Molto
II. Menuetto – Trio I-II
III. Adagio
IV. Menuetto (Allegretto) Trio I-II
V. Romanze (Adagio-Allegretto-Adagio)
VI. Thema (Andante) mit Variationen
VII. Finale (Molto Allegro)
An Inktroduction with Recommendations
by Adrian Tan

” a Notturno… a scene from Romeo and Juliet, under starry skies, a scene in which longing, grief and love are wrung like a distillation from the beating hearts of the lovers.”

– Alfred Einstein

These are but some of the words that have been used to describe the Adagio from this music. Music which has often been regarded as a masterpiece for wind instruments, of the most refined sonority that has never been equaled, nor is likely to be surpassed in all history.

My first encounter with this music was through the movie Amadeus in the scene where Salieri encounters the manuscript of Mozart’s music at the Archbishop’s palace. Initially candid and even mocking, Shaffer’s effective description of the music turns into one of moving beauty and admiration as it unravels in Salieri’s mind:

“It started simply enough: just a pulse in the lowest registers, bassoons and basset horns – like a rusty squeezebox. It would have been comic except for the slowness, which gave it a sort of serenity. And then suddenly, high above it, sounded a single note of the oboe. It hung there unwavering – piercing me though – till breath could hold it no longer and a clarinet withdrew it out of me and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight it had me trembling… dimly the stars shone on the empty street. I was suddenly frightened. It seemed to me I had heard the voice of God.”

– Salieri, from Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus

I thought that that one scene summed up the whole movie. One composer staring into the music of another, only to recognize its destined greatness and his own mediocrity. And what better passage to use to represent divinity than that soaring oboe line of the Adagio that never fails to bring a tear to one’s eye. This is a sound so pure and beautiful, that it has to come from a man of immeasurable genius or from God himself.

The Serenade was composed at a time when Mozart’s career was taking a drastic turn. He had decided to leave the service of the Archbishop of Salzburg, a post that he called his “slavery”, little knowing that he was from then on destined to lead the life of a wandering freelance musician and eventually to die a pauper. Yet, even if he did, the young, impetuous Mozart had too much music to give to the world, and this was something no oppressive monarch, courtier or patron could hamper.

He had at this time set his mind on his greatest passion – composing for the stage. He was in Munich on leave of absence in 1781 preparing Idomeneo with the Bavarian Court Theatre in the hopes of obtaining the position of royal court composer. This was a position he never got, but his stint in Munich gave him the opportunity to renew his acquaintance with the wind players of the court orchestra who were known for their strict discipline and virtuosity. Listening to these musicians was all the inspiration needed for Mozart to create a piece for an ensemble of wind instruments that would redefine the standards of the repertoire.

Romanticised portrait of Mozart The Serenade was certainly composed with no ordinary wind players in mind. Individual parts do not demand startling technical virtuosity but rigorous demands are made on the blending of colours and the creation of textures between the wind instruments. Considering the instrumentation (a pair of oboes, clarinets, basset horns, bassoons, four horns and a bass), this would seem a challenging task to those acquainted with the particular difficulties due to the individual characteristics of each wind instrument. The single reed clarinet group can sound dark, bright or warm (I can only generalize, the spectrum of the sound that can be created clarinet family is amazing). The double reed instruments are incredibly difficult to play as they are, making especially great demands on the musicians’ sense of pitch.

Only talented performers can obtain a truly relaxed and beautiful tone on these, and this is no small feat. In addition to this is the French Horn, a sound that bears no similarity with the reed instruments. Thus seen, the challenges posed by this mixed bag of instruments account for the lack of repertoire for wind quintets and other like ensembles until the 20th century. Nonetheless, it would take a true master composer to see the true potential and to turn the difficulties into merits.

The first movement is an Allegro in sonata form prefaced by a short and stately introduction (Largo). Mozart passes the theme from instrument to instrument, allowing each unique colour to shine though momentarily before another takes over. I think right up front, he declares his intention by giving a short solo in the introduction to the oboe and clarinet, distilled from the tutti of the larger ensemble so that we hear the individual personality of each instrument. The second and fourth movements are minuets – both have two trios, one of which is in a minor key. Here Mozart has good fun with this oft-used dance form, stretching it to its limits.

Sandwiched between these dances is the beautiful Adagio on which we have already spent so many words. Listen to the moment when the solo clarinet takes over the theme from the oboe. In some performances, the transition is seamless, creating a magical effect of one sound transmuting into another. The fifth movement is an extended Romanze in three sections. The first and third are elegiac while the middle Allegretto section is quirky and unsettling like a burlesque.

The final movement is a set of variations on an Andante theme, returning to the key of B-flat major. It is apparently a reworking of the Flute Quartet in C major (K285b). The finale is a quick rondo of great charm and wit, with the usual dose of Mozartian humour, to round up the piece in a most rousing fashion.

Most performances take a good 50 minutes so it is quite a lot of music to sit through. A Serenade (or “evening song”) serves as a piece of entertainment music at an event (some scholars think Mozart used this piece for his own wedding); but there is really a lot going on in this rather revolutionary piece of entertainment that will reward the attentive listener.

Recommended Recordings
On CD, the Gran Partita is often uncoupled with any other work, being almost an hour long on its own, unlike the other shorter serenades and divertimenti. If you know the work and have heard performances of it, you wouldn’t hesitate to buy if you knew of a good recording. Otherwise, it is understandably a tough decision. Anyway, for those of you who are facing this dilemma, here are my two highest recommendations for your reference:

Philips Academy of St. Martin-in-the-fields
Sir Neville Marriner
Philips 446 227-2 (Best of Mozart Edition Vol.5) [48:57] mid-price.
Also available as part of the Complete Mozart Edition.
Old issue 412 726-2

The Academy of St.Martins-in-the-Fields under the direction of Sir Neville Marriner has a solid reputation in fine Mozart performance and it is no less true in this case. It was this ensemble that provided the soundtrack to the movie Amadeus and thus, upon seeing this recording of the shelf, I had thought that this was the same recording. This was not the case, but I was nonetheless not disappointed.

This rendition is stylish, with brilliant and immaculately precise wind playing to match. I’m sure few recordings of this music can rival the standards set by the ASMF. Sir Neville Marriner’s reading is refined, mannered and tasteful, lending an aristocratic air to the music. In my mind, one of the best amongst the comprehensive and highly regarded Mozart set(s) on the Philips label, of which a large portion is contributed by the Academy.

Members of the Orchestra of St.Luke’s
Sir Charles Mackerras
[50:37] full-price

For a more sensitive and personal approach to the music, Sir Charles Mackerras and the members of the Orchestra of St.Lukes’s on Telarc is my choice. The playing is not nearly as technically perfect as that of the ASMF but it captures the more relaxed and emotive spirit of the music.

Taking that Adagio as a gauge, this is the more moving take with the winds sounding so much more full blooded. There is more spontaneity and a greater sense of occasion probably as a result of the acoustics of the recording venue as compared to the studio sound of the Philips release. The wind players of St.Luke deliver an outstanding performance, impressing with their more involvement in the music. Sir Charles Mackerras’ reading is warm and rich with sentimentality – also in my opinion, more tightly paced allowing space for the Adagio and Romanze to really blossom yet adding that extra momentum in the latter movements making all the difference.

Other recommendations include a mid-price Chandos release performed by the Scottish National Orchestra Wind Ensemble under Paavo Järvi (with a Divertimento coupling – a bonus if you want to think of it that way), well worth the price. There is one period recording of the work by Octophorus conducted by Barthold Kuijken (on Accent) that I’m not familiar with but might be of interest to those keen on authentic performances. The reocrding by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Alexander Schneider that might be worth exploring as well.

Adrian Tan is proud that he did not queue for a “Hello Kitty” toy at McDonalds. . .

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644: 24.1.2000. up.28.10.2000 Adrian Tan

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