Mozart: Piano Quartet in E-flat major, K. 493 (1786, 30 minutes)

Mozart wrote the first of his two Piano Quartets (in G minor, K. 478) in late 1785, part of a commission from publisher-composer Franz Anton Hoffmeister. Hoffmeister didn’t much care for the new Quartet, though, thinking it too dark and complex to sell well, and cancelled the commission. A few months later, in May-June 1786, Mozart went on to write the Piano Quartet in E-flat major anyway. Described by Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein as “bright in color, but iridescent, with hints of darker shades,” the E-flat major Quartet became popular in Europe’s salons. A columnist for a Weimar music journal of the day wrote humorously of performances by less accomplished amateurs, where “everyone yawned with boredom at the incomprehensible racket of four instruments that did not keep together for four bars on end.” By contrast, he continued, “What a difference when this oft-mentioned work is performed with the greatest accuracy by four skilled musicians who have studied it carefully, in a quiet room where the suspension of every note cannot escape the listening ear.”

With its relaxed yet purposeful stride, the first movement has several themes, probably the most important of which is a graceful tune that begins in the piano and is quickly taken up by the violin. This motto is heard some 37 times throughout the movement and dominates the central development section, with its keyboard runs and string dialogues. The beautiful, expressive slow movement is largely a dialogue between the piano and the strings, dominated by a melody that Alfred Einstein described as “the purest, most childlike and godlike melody ever sung.” Dominated by an idea heard first in three unison strings accompanied by syncopated piano, the third movement, like the first, concludes with a canonic statement of the main theme.

Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A major, K. 581 (1789, 33 minutes)

Mozart’s last years, spent in Vienna, had many high points, but also saw financial worries, increasingly bad health, and gradually waning fame. One of the redeeming features of those years, though, was his friendship with the clarinetist Anton Stadler, a performer in the city’s court orchestra. Mozart – who had always loved the sound of the clarinet, but was particularly taken with Stadler’s abilities – wrote a number of works for his friend, including one of his last masterpieces, the Clarinet Concerto, and the Clarinet Quintet, written in the summer and early fall of 1789. Stadler was known for the beauty of his tone in the lower, so-called chalumeau, range of the clarinet, and Mozart made a point of exploiting this range in his Quintet (the work is, in fact, often performed on the lower pitched basset clarinet).

The lyrical, autumnal first movement sets the mood for the entire work; the five instruments interact as equals, with a fair amount of contrapuntal interaction. The clarinet takes more of a lead in the beautiful slow second movement. The short minuet third movement is noteworthy for the clarinet solo featured in the central trio section. The final movement is a set of five variations on a bouncy little theme resembling a child’s song; Mozart develops this simple tune in a number of ways, including the introduction of a counter theme in the first variation, a minor key third variation, a slow fifth variation of surpassing loveliness, and a perky coda to conclude.

Mozart: Grande Sestetto Concertante, K. 364 (1779, 30 minutes)

The Grande Sestetto Concertante is an 1808 arrangement of Mozart’s famous Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major, K. 364, for pairs of violins and violas, along with cello and bass. The sinfonia concertante form is, as its name suggests, something of a combination of symphony and concerto, typically a multi-movement work for two or more soloists with orchestra. Related in some respects to the concerto grosso of the Baroque era, the sinfonia concertante enjoyed quite a vogue during the half-century from 1770 to 1820. One of the greatest works of the genre is Mozart’s K. 364, which Mozart probably wrote in Salzburg during the summer of 1779. He may have intended to play one of the solo roles himself; Mozart played both the violin and viola well, preferring the latter when playing chamber music.

The first movement is one of Mozart’s largest, most melodically profligate movements. Several memorable themes are strung together, and noteworthy is the way Mozart has the soloists ease their way into the texture as the other instruments fade. The soloists sometimes play in harmony, sometimes answer one another in a call-and-response, but are always equal partners. There is an almost operatic seriousness to the poignant, emotional second movement. Largely in a dark C minor, the soloists engage in a passionate colloquy. By contrast, the final movement is a brilliant rondo, with four statements of the dancing main theme and three contrasting episodes in which the soloists engage in a freewheeling series of exchanges.

Program Notes by Chris Morrison