Saturday, July 19, 2008

Mozart's Orchestral Palette

Even before the orchestra began to play the K. 205 D major divertimento to open the 34th Season Midsummer Mozart Festival under the baton of Music Director George Cleve, one could expect that this occasion would be different, rather than merely "diverting." There were no cellos on stage. The melodic voices were concentrated in the two violin and viola sections, supported by two double basses. In addition the wind section was restricted to two horns and one bassoon. The program notes made the usual dismissive comments about the divertimento being "simply a diverting piece of music that you were not expected to listen to with the care that you might give to a weightier work" (as if the audiences at the time of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart gave much consideration to the "weight" of the music being played for them), followed by the usual gratuitous nod to the composer:

This is brilliantly mature music, even if it does come from a 17-year old boy whose talent was light years beyond his calendar years.

This all diverts (so to speak) our attention from an aspect of Mozart that is seldom explored, which is the extent to which each of his compositions (sometimes down to the individual numbers of an opera) draws much of its strength from a meticulous choice of instrumentation and the resulting sound qualities. A more useful context is provided by the notes that Jos van der Zanden prepared for the Brilliant Classics edition of Mozart's complete works:

In some of his Serenades and Divertimenti Mozart experimented with unusual combinations of instruments. He not seldom enriched an ensemble of strings by adding woodwinds and brass instruments, in search for coloristic effects and new sound spectra. A fine example is the curious ‘Concerto ï sia Divertimento’ in E flat major, K. 113, composed in Milan in 1771. Here Mozart for the first time used clarinets. He revised the work a few years later, adding oboes, english horns and bassoons and enabling the clarinets to be omitted.

A daring combination was tried in the six-movement Divertimento in D major, K. 131 from the summer of 1772. Along the strings (with diveded violas) there was a flute, an oboe, a bassoon, and last but not least four horns. The horns feature as a solo quartet in several movements and these passages call for very skilled musicians. Such passages as the slow introduction to the finale, where the seven wind instruments play without strings, must have been a real playground for Mozart to exploring a variety of timbres. In a later stage he transplanted such innovations into his major works, like symphonies.

K. 205 was composed in Vienna in 1773; and, while the orchestration may not be as radical as that chosen for K. 131, Mozart is still very much in his playground. Furthermore, this is another composition that features winds playing without strings, even if it is only in the modest setting of the trio for the second menuetto. There is, however, some possibility that the decision to accompany the two horns with the bassoon was Cleve's. When I consulted the on-line version of the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe, I discovered that the bass line, intended for both bassoon and double basses, was marked "senza Fagotto" in this trio! Either way this composition is as much about orchestral color as it is about the inventions of melody, harmony, and counterpoint that usually draw our attention to Mozart.

K. 205 was followed by the K. 488 A major piano concerto with Jon Nakamatsu as soloist. This is a much later work (1786); but Mozart is still in his playground. This time we have a full complement of strings; but for winds we have two horns, two bassoons, two clarinets, and a single flute. This makes for an interesting blend of high voices, particularly when Mozart exploits the sonorities of the clarinet in both low and high registers. Several different combinations of these sounds unfold in the orchestral accompaniment to the second Adagio movement; and one can tell that Mozart was enjoying what he was doing, because the piano solo (which he probably played) attempts to imitate these colors!

This was but one example of how this performance was a vast improvement over the last K. 488 performance I discussed, because it demonstrated that keen sense of acoustic balance that emerged in the collaboration of Nakamatsu and Cleve. This was very much an intimate conversation involving piano and orchestra, in which the orchestra provided several significant solo voices to add to that conversation; and Nakamatsu has the confidence of a piano soloist who knows that his is not the only voice in the conversation. Indeed, his sensitivity in playing softly can be heard when he introduces a passage at piano level and then repeats it pianissimo. He understands intimacy, and Cleve knew how to get his orchestra to share in that intimacy.

While I was doing my background research, I discovered that the numbering of the C major oboe concerto, played by soloist Laura Griffiths after the intermission, opens a minor can of worms. The program listed it as K. 271k, while the score in the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe lists it as K. 314 (285d) along with a footnote stating that the music is "presumably identical" (Vermutlich identisch) with K. 271k! The Neue Mozart-Ausgabe numbers are identical to those assigned to the D major flute concerto, but a footnote indicates that the oboe version is the earlier one. This all raises an interesting question in the context of Mozart's interest in orchestral color. Did he really think that instrument color did not matter in this work, or was the flute version an expedient act to satisfy a flute soloist? Both versions provide the same wind accompaniment in the orchestra, two oboes and two horns; so go figure it.

The level of Griffiths' "conversation" was, unfortunately, not as intimate as Nakamatsu's had been. Indeed, some of her solo work had a rushed sound, which tended to undermine the "grammar" of the phrasing. Thus, while there were no problems with balance, there was a certain chemistry lacking in the overall performance that made it less compelling than the piano concerto.

That chemistry quickly returned to the orchestra, however, as they concluded with the K. 504 D major symphony ("Prague"). This provided the richest assortment of colors, with the full string section filled out with two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, and a pair of timpani. Cleve was right on top of all the dynamic variety, making sure that the orchestra had enough left to give to a brilliantly energetic final Presto movement. Given the resources required, we might call this the biggest playground of the evening; and Cleve knew how to deliver it with just the right balance of discipline and play.

There was one "intruder" in the performance not listed on the program. After the piano concerto Nakamatsu took an encore by performing the Opus 14 Rondo Capriccioso in E major by Felix Mendelssohn. This led me to realize how little I have written about Mendelssohn at all on this blog and how little he is played by the pianists whose discs I collect. The Opus 14 makes for a nice encore. It is certainly showy enough, and it provided Nakamatsu with further opportunity to demonstrate his command of lightness of touch. The only problem is that Mendelssohn does not make for particularly good company with Mozart from a "cultural" point of view; but, if we began with the "diversion" of a divertimento, then perhaps the encore "diverted" us from Mozart to take our intermission break!

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