Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Anticipating the Midsummer Mozart Festival

The Midsummer Mozart Festival Ensemble gave a pre-season preview as part of the Noontime Concerts™ series at Old St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco. The program of chamber music offered some interesting perspectives on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his times. Most interesting may have been Johann Wendt's 1792 arrangement of Mozart's opera, Die Zauberflöte, for flute, violin, viola, and cello, the same ensemble for which Mozart composed his K. 285 and K. 298 quartets. In the remarks he delivered after this work was performed, George Cleve, who directs the Midsummer Mozart Festival, noted that Wendt had arranged almost all of the opera; but only eight selections were performed, which gave a good illustration of when Wendt had to apply his own sense of adaptation over more direct transcription. While it was easy enough to enjoy the "opera without words" experience, anyone familiar with the opera would probably miss the rich spectrum of sounds that could only be provided by the orchestration Mozart had originally conceived. Nevertheless, as Cleve observed, before the age of recording, this was often the only way one could experience this part of Mozart's repertoire, unless one were in a city where the opera was regularly performed; and certainly the sound made for a good fit in the Old St. Mary's Cathedral.

The greater challenge, ironically, was the K. 478 G minor piano quartet, at least on acoustic grounds. St. Patrick's Church, where more than half of the Noontime Concerts™ presentations used to take place, had an altar area that was more accommodating to the presence of a grand piano. The space in Old St. Mary's could not support the usual layout for a piano quartet, with the strings in front of the piano, all within the line of sight of the pianist (and each other). At this performance the piano was behind violinist Mariya Borozina, who directly faced violist Elizabeth Prior-Runnicles with cellist Dawn Foster-Dodson between them. The piano lid was raised to full-stick level; and I suspect that pianist Miles Graber had major eye contact problems. However, what they could not achieve by sight, they seemed to achieve quite effectively by ear; and, while I was worried that the piano would overwhelm the three string players, the whole performance was excellently balanced (an element of performance to which I have become more sensitive recently).

The last time I wrote about K. 478, it was about how it tends to have a better reputation than Mozart's other piano quartet, K. 493; so I concentrated on why K. 493 should not be dismissed lightly. Still, K. 478 probably deserves its reputation for a variety of reasons. With my Brahms listening experience so recent, I was particularly attuned to Mozart's approach to that concept of prolongation that was so important in Heinrich Schenker's studies of musical form. In several of the Mozart compositions I have practiced, I noticed that he did not always throw a lot of weight behind what is called the "development" portion of a sonata-form movement; and, in several cases I found that the development was little more than a "breather" before recapitulating the expository material. On the other hand Mozart used this recapitulation as an opportunity for further development, somewhat along the lines that Brahms would later take in his first symphony, where the allegro portion is a prolongation of the introductory material.

I tried to dig up some material that would determine whether or not this was the first time Mozart approached a sonata-form movement this way. However, the only innovative credit that this work gets is that it is generally recognized as the first work for piano and string trio in which the string voices are as important as the piano's. On the other hand this is a work from 1785 Vienna that was composed shortly after the six string quartets that Mozart had dedicated to Joseph Haydn. The conventional way in which Mozart is compared with Haydn in exemplified by a passage from a text by Homer Ulrich that was incorporated by Louis Biancolli in his Mozart Handbook:

Haydn was a master of the unexpected. His theme often recur in an unorthodox fashion; occasionally, when their return has been prepared for in the usual way, they do not reappear at all. Mozart was not given to shocking or surprising his listeners.

Needless to say, it is absurd to make this claim of the last of those six "Haydn" quartets. If anything, as I have previously observed, Mozart's experiments with dissonance may have even inspired Haydn to perform similar experiments in Die Schöpfung! So it would not surprise me if, with Haydn's inventiveness in mind, Mozart would have decided, "hot on the heels" of those string quartets, to experiment with a recapitulation that bore some "family resemblance" to what one tended to hear during development. This is, of course, pure speculation; but, for better or worse, is seems to have been brought on by the way in which the Midsummer Mozart Festival Ensemble chose to shape their performance of K. 478!

Of course Ulrich's observation comes from a book he published in 1948 and more contemporary minds (Joseph Kerman comes to mind immediately) have no trouble viewing Mozart as a radical for his times in many ways. Indeed, this view has become the norm in most of the Mozart performances we are now likely to hear, which is why the annual Midsummer Mozart Festival always promises to be an exciting and stimulating affair. If Bird still lives for those who make bebop their primary jazz diet, then Mozart is just as alive for whose of us who still delight in the classical repertoire!

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