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Mozart’s chamber music and piano works reveal the composer at his most intimate. Spanning all of his short life, they encompass a wide spectrum of emotion, from innocence and fun to a dramatic power that can echo the impact of Don Giovanni.
He was as prolific here as in his symphonies: string quartets, piano sonatas, violin and piano sonatas (or rather piano and violin, as he described them) and other gems including quintets, piano duets and divertimenti simply poured from his pen, condensing his characteristic melodic warmth, perfection of form and direct, finely honed expressiveness.
Haydn, Mozart’s mentor, made a particularly significant impact upon his string quartets – Mozart’s second set of six quartets is nicknamed, slightly confusingly, ‘the Haydn Quartets’ (thanks to its dedication to the older composer). From Haydn, Mozart learnt the sheer scope of the form’s potential; and Haydn absorbed plenty in return from his genius of a pupil. The pair spurred each other on, lifting chamber music into the stratosphere of artistic achievement and paving the way for Beethoven’s explorations of form and spirituality in these previously modest genres. Neither Beethoven’s quartets nor, indeed, his piano sonatas would have been possible without Mozart’s.
Mozart was himself a fabulous pianist and improviser. Most of his sonatas (both solo and duet) were written either for his pupils to play, or for himself; there’s far more to them than the ‘easy’ C major sonata that forms the introduction to Mozart for so many fledgling pianists. As for the violin sonatas, Mozart regarded these as piano sonatas with violin accompaniment, rather than vice versa as they’re too often presented; at their finest, though, they are miraculous dialogues between two equals.
But this unparalleled composer, whose central inspiration was always the human voice, was especially in his element when writing for woodwind. And that is reflected in our listening choices of Mozart’s chamber compositions…
Divertimento in D, K136
This early work of a sweet and unpretentious tunefulness is the most popular of Mozart’s too rarely played divertimenti. Although it’s heard here in the chamber orchestra version, its intimacy makes it far more of a chamber work than a symphonic one. A divertimento doesn’t have the gravitas of his late chamber pieces, but this one is delightful from start to finish, played by the Camerata Salzburg conducted by the late Sandór Végh.
Capriccio 10 185
Piano Sonata in A minor, K310
This visionary piece, one of his two piano sonatas in minor keys, infuses this most private genre with truly operatic emotion. The first movement plunges into the heart of the matter with a strongly rhythmic theme over pounding chords contrasting with a quieter, pleading motif. The slow movement is inward and lyrical and the finale is feverish ‘perpetual motion’. Richard Goode’s recording is humane, fiery and songful.
Nonesuch 7559 79831-2
Sonata in D for Two Pianos, K448
Think double concerto without the orchestra. Mozart must have loved playing this: the piano parts sparkle and shine, while there are ample cheeky tricks to challenge the players. An extrovert first movement, a gorgeously melodic central slow movement and a whirling rondo finale make the work as much fun to hear as to play. Fabulous poetry, tenderness and fun from two great pianists, Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu.
Sony Classical SK 39511
Violin Sonata in B flat, K454
Violinist Arthur Grumiaux and pianist Clara Haskil are inspiring on this 1957 live recording of one of Mozart’s most striking works for piano and violin. A slow introduction leads into a sparkling allegro. The central slow movement deepens through magical harmonic manipulations; with hindsight, one wonders whether Wagner had been influenced by them. An exuberant rondo finishes the piece.
INA Mémoire Vive IMV 049
Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments, K361, ‘Gran Partita’
There’s no flute in the seven-movement ‘Gran Partita’, so the colours are primarily dark and burnished. Nothing could be more exquisite than the Adagio, where the oboe and clarinet exchange long-spun phrases over a softly pulsing accompaniment. In this new recording, veteran Mozartian Charles Mackerras conducts members of the Orchestra of St Luke’s.
String Quartet in G, K387
One of Mozart’s most popular early quartets, K387 has a freshness and vitality that’s irresistible. The first movement is full of companionable contrast, the slow movement and minuet are replete with charm and the contrapuntal finale sets the instruments chasing each other’s tails for all they’re worth. In this recording by the spirited Talich Quartet, one can hear that the work’s rarely used nickname ‘Spring’ isn’t there for nothing
String Quartet in C, K465, ‘Dissonance’
The ‘Dissonance’ earns its name from the extraordinary chromaticism of its slow introduction. It’s a mature work that looks back to Haydn in the finale’s folksy melody and forward to Beethoven with the rhythmic strength of its motifs; but there’s also a deep poetic quality to its surprising harmonic twists that are Mozart’s alone. The Alban Berg String Quartet gives a profound, sympathetic interpretation.
Apex 0927 40828-2
Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor, K478
Here’s the drama of Don Giovanni or Symphony No.40 condensed into a quartet. Tension, drama and Beethovenian strength permeate the first movement; the slow movement is all mellifluous beauty and subtle phrasing, then everyone lets their hair down in the fizzing major-key finale. Don’t miss its companion piece, the Piano Quartet No.2 in E flat. The playing of Paul Lewis and the Leopold String Trio is full of joie de vivre.
String Quintet in C, K515
In Mozart’s few but fabulous string quintets, an extra viola enriches the already abundant sound of the string quartet. K515 is one of his most expansive, relaxed and good-humoured chamber works, with deliciously inspired melodies that follow one another in breathtaking succession. Also, don’t miss its darker companion, the G minor Quintet, K516. This is a classic recording from the Amadeus Quartet and Cecil Aronowitz.
DG 477 5346
Clarinet Quintet in A, K581
Mozart and the clarinet were made for one another: his lyrical phrasing offers music that is honeyed, meditative and generous-spirited. The Clarinet Quintet includes one of the most sublime slow movements he ever composed; for the entire piece, the clarinet glides through the texture of the string quartet around it. Legendary clarinettist Jack Brymer sounds all mellifluous wisdom with the Allegri Quartet.
Philips 475 7052