Slow moments with SW: Mozart – serene intensity

H’mm, something of a challenge this one, I fear. How on earth does one choose? Not quite the “stick a pin in the Köchel Catalogue” approach, but perhaps a chance to share some of my favourites plus a special request or two. Mozart’s ability to create heart-rending melodies – and not only in his slow moments – never fails does it? They seem to pour from his quill pen onto the manuscript paper in an enviably unstoppable flow of inspiration. But enough of this purple prose – let’s simply allow the notes to speak for themselves.

My first choice comes from Cosi fan Tutte, his opera to Da Ponte’s libretto, exploring fidelity (amongst other things) where military men Guglielmo and Ferrando are encouraged to test their respective girlfriends’ commitment by the cynical Don Alfonso – each seeing whether they can seduce the other’s inamorata whilst in disguise as Albanians (!), the officers having allegedly been sent off to war. The girls – Dorabella and Fiordiligi – and Don Alfonso sing an utterly ravishing trio Soave sia il vento wishing gentle winds for the journey into battle. The fact that this is all under false premises makes it all the more intense for the listener “in the know”. Here are three great names from the past giving their glorious best: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry with the Philharmonia and Karl Böhm.

Next to the Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments K. 361. Written in 1781 or 82 (the history of its composition is all a bit of a mystery), it’s also known as the ‘gran partita’. The clue is in the name – there are, er, 13 instruments (12 wind and a double bass) involved giving a rich and flexible texture to the work which Mozart explores to the full. The third movement, a larghetto, begins with a glorious oboe solo soaring over a gently pulsing accompaniment from the other players and is truly heart-stopping. It’s then shared with the clarinet and bassett horn (a kind of bass clarinet but not quite). Three or four years ago I had the great privilege of hearing Michael Collins’ London Winds perform the work at one of the marvellous LSO St. Luke’s lunchtime concerts (may the concerts be back soon…). It was utterly beguiling. If you’re interested to know more, do read this little interview in Gramophone with Trevor Pinnock.  I can’t give you London Winds, but I can give you members of the equally superb LSO also at St Luke’s.

I can’t really ignore the piano concertos can I? Here’s the slow movement – another larghetto –  of the very last one, no. 27, K. 595 in B flat. Musicologists are yet to agree on whether the work was composed in 1788, 89, 90 or 91, but the autograph is dated 1791. We are not even sure whether Mozart performed it himself. But, when all is said and done, it doesn’t matter, does it? We have the notes, and what glorious notes they are! Here is what Angela Hewitt has to say about the movement in her September 2016 article on the work for Gramophone:

In the first movement Mozart put in so many daring harmonies, and in the second he wrote something drastically simple. The theme here is very bare first of all and doesn’t travel much harmonically. It’s one of his simplest. I’ve tried so many different tempos in this movement, and even when I was recording it we had two different versions. I don’t think it should be too slow. It’s Larghetto alla breve, so two to the bar, not four; and because the harmonies aren’t complicated, there has to be this lovely pulsing accompaniment in the left hand (the orchestra accompanies the theme later in bar 49). There’s a bit of room for ornamentation in this movement as well. When you think of the slow movements of other concertos, such as K482 or K466, this is quite different in mood. There’s a sadness behind it, which, I think, is carried along into the third movement.

I can’t give you Angela H., but I can give you the equally superlative Mozartian Murray Perahia (I remember the series of Mozart Piano Concertos he gave at the Queen Elizabeth Hall during the 1980s with the English Chamber Orchestra with great pleasure). The movement begins at 13’ 38” in to the recording. The sense of repose tinged with melancholy Perahia brings is overwhelming.

Equally, I can’t ignore Mozart’s string quartets and quintets (Hans Keller would never forgive me). So after much delightful listening, I’ve plumped for the slow movement – another Larghetto – that of K. 589, in B flat, the second of the three so-called “Prussian” Quartets, Mozart’s final three works in this form, written for Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia. He was pretty handy on the ‘cello, which Mozart – naturally – reflects in the work. In fact, the slow movement puts the ‘cello firmly in the spotlight, so that the King could demonstrate his prowess. A heavenly duet between him and the first fiddle ensues. Glorious, but one feels like an eavesdropper onto a private conversation between good friends (h’mm – isn’t that the essence of chamber music though?). And having mentioned Hans Keller, let’s see what he has to say about these quartets in this little extract from a note for an EBU International String Quartet Series concert given by the Tel Aviv Quartet at St John’s, Smith Square on 1 March 1976:

…If the cello was to take a leading part, so must, in turns, the middle parts. The resulting solo textures and structural adjustments produced an unprecedented type of string quartet – with which Mozart is scarcely ever credited, although it influenced string-quartet writing all the way down to the twentieth century. Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, then, contributed considerably more to the history of music than what must have been his excellent cello-playing – to judge from the difficulty of these cello parts.

From the players’ point of view, the ‘Prussian’ Quartets are, therefore, the most difficult of Mozart’s great ‘Ten’, both in technique and in blend and balance, and the B flat one of 1790 is, perhaps, the intensest ‘shocker’…

My own recording is by the Chilingirian Quartet from about 2001 and to listen to Levon Chilingirian and the late and deeply missed Philip de Groote in this movement ‘talk’ to each other is the deepest of pleasures. But, here are the Alban Berg Quartet – the Larghetto begins at 6’ 20”. Prepare, in Hans Keller style, to be shocked.

My final two selections come via special requests from Yorkshire and Norfolk. First to the horn quintet in E flat, K. 407. Written in 1782 for the horn player Joseph Leutgeb (who, intriguingly, also ran a cheese shop in Vienna using a loan from Leopold Mozart to get going). The first thing to bring to your attention is the fact that the accompanying string quartet is composed of one violin, two violas and a cello. Most unusual, but – think about it – the range of the horn is closer to that of the viola and so the change from the traditional scoring thus emphasizes that mellow middle register.

And who else to choose as performer but Dennis Brain, surely one of the greatest horn players of all time and what poise and lyricism he brings to the movement. A life cut tragically short.

And finally – to the Quintet for piano and wind instruments, K. 452 in E flat. Yet another larghetto (although, I read, it doesn’t say so in the autograph manuscript). It was composed in 1784 and Mozart was clearly very proud of it as he wrote in a letter to his father Leopold that it was “the best thing I have written in my life”. One wonders what his view would have been a few years later when many more gems had been produced. Here are Dennis Brain’s Wind Ensemble with the pianist Colin Horsley back in 1954. The movement starts at about 10 minutes in.

I could have offered up many more choices, but this post is already quite long enough – you’ll notice the absence of the piano sonatas, the symphonies, the Requiem…but I’ll leave you to explore those.


This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Slow moments with SW: Mozart – serene intensity


    Thank you so much for this thoughtful, sensitive and engaging blog: I for one agree with it all, though, like anyone, I’d add in a list of my own. Do not overlook *that* slow introduction in the ‘Dissonance’ quartet, which transports us to stranger places than most of us have ever been, including WAM! Keep writing, SW … – Christopher W


  2. mj263 says:

    I love Peter Shaffer’s comment (as Salieri) in the play Amadeus, on the opening of the Larghetto of the Gran Partita. It describes it so well – “On the page it looked nothing…Just a pulse – bassoons and basset-horns – like a rusty squeezebox. Then suddenly – high above it – an oboe, a single note, hanging there unwavering, till a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.