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Mozart’s symphonies, like those by Joseph Haydn, virtually invented the modern orchestra. In earlier generations, composing for a group of instruments together meant writing out the main musical lines and allowing for an accompanying keyboard instrument, usually a harpsichord, to fill in the rest of the harmony – the technique known as ‘figured bass’.
Mozart’s total of 41 symphonies took music far beyond these boundaries – above all the last and greatest group of six, Nos. 35 to 41. (‘No.37’ was subsequently discovered to be written by Michael Haydn, Joseph’s younger brother.) By this point Mozart had opened up a brilliant new orchestral sound world that encompassed scintillating pace, a wider range of expression than ever before, and much more sophisticated orchestral colouring, especially in the woodwind section.
Along with those last six great symphonies, around three-quarters of Mozart’s 27 piano concertos are peerless masterworks in the same ground-breaking league. An amazingly gifted pianist in his own right, Mozart wrote his concertos to be directed by himself from the keyboard. The early fortepiano instrument of his time was underpowered compared with today’s mighty concert grand, but Mozart nonetheless conjured from it a near-miraculous range of lyrical beauty and subtle light and shade – qualities that transfer wonderfully well, in their own way, to the modern instrument.
When it comes to Mozart, quality also means quantity. Instead of trying to remember which piano concerto in which key is No.16 or 22, 219 or 602, you’ll probably find it easier to think of each one as having a kind of ‘postcode’ – in Mozart’s case, a ‘K’ number from the still-definitive catalogue of his works published in 1862 by the Austrian mineralogist, botanist, and music historian, Ludwig Köchel. (Don’t be confused by numbers preceded by ‘KV’ for ‘Köchel-Verzeichnis’ or Köchel listing – they mean the same thing.) Happy listening!
Serenade in D, K320, ‘Posthorn’
It’s another aspect of the Mozart phenomenon that he could compose music as fabulous as this to be literally talked over: his Salzburg Serenades were written as background music for the Archbishop’s official dinners. This multi-movement jewel, recorded here (along with others including the ‘Haffner’ Serenade) by Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, is full of invention.
Philips Duo 464 0222 (2 CDs)
Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra in E flat, K364
An accomplished player on both violin and viola, Mozart preferred the latter, and the Sinfonia Concertante’s slow movement is a tribute to its tawny-coloured expressiveness. Pavlo Beznosiuk and Monica Huggett are joined by the period-instrument Portland Baroque Orchestra. They also play a real rarity, the Concertone, K190 for two violins and orchestra.
Virgin Classics VC 545 2902
Piano Concerto No.22 in E flat, K482
It’s odd that some of Mozart’s finest piano concertos are still played less often than their more famous siblings. This one is his longest and one of the loveliest. As well as the mellow, sensuous orchestral sound (courtesy of a clarinet-dominated woodwind section), the slow movement’s understated wistfulness is a Mozart trademark. Daniel Barenboim directs the Berlin Philharmonic with supreme artistry.
Teldec 0630 18956-2 (2 CDs)
Symphony No. 38 in D, K504, ‘Prague’
The nickname of this symphony, composed in Mozart’s adopted hometown of Vienna in 1786, suggests he wrote it for the Bohemian city, where they evidently liked three-movement symphonies such as this (the Viennese preferred four). It’s a work of remarkable grandeur and ingenuity, interpreted with old-world charm by Karl Böhm and the Berlin Philharmonic, along with Symphonies Nos. 39 and 41.
DVG 477 5746
Piano Concerto No.15 in B flat, K450
Another masterpiece whose neglect can’t be explained, it is packed with marvellous ideas; the piano scintillates, then reflects thoughtfully; the orchestra comments wryly, or else joins in the fun. Try the first movement’s roguish opening for a start. Mitsuko Uchida and the English Chamber Orchestra under Jeffrey Tate do pleasing justice to this and four other piano concertos.
Philips Duo 473 3132 (2 CDs)
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K550
Mystery surrounds this astonishing symphony: we don’t know why it was composed or when or where it was first performed. The music’s G minor tonality creates a sound-world of dark and driving urgency from the start, with the mournful violin theme above gently pulsing violas. John Eliot Gardiner incisively conducts the English Baroque Soloists. The recording also includes the Symphony No.41, ‘Jupiter’.
Philips 426 3152
Piano Concerto No.21 in C, K467, ‘Elvira Madigan’
Another famous nickname, but this one was given two centuries after the work was written. The haunting theme of the concerto’s slow movement, by pianist Géza Anda, was used for the soundtrack of the 1967 film Elvira Madigan. He plays with near-magical poise and flair while directing the Salzburg Mozarteum Camerata Academica on this disc, which includes the Concertos in G, K453, and B flat, K238.
DG 447 4362
Symphony No. 41 in C, K551, ‘Jupiter’
Like many symphony or concerto nicknames, this one is unofficial, subsequently tacked on by a publisher. This is an Olympian peak among Mozart’s symphonies. In the finale, he superimposes five themes from the movement in a jaw-dropping tour de force. Thomas Beecham is on sparkling form with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Also on this recording are the Bassoon Concerto, K191, and Clarinet Concerto, K622.
EMI CDM 567 6012
Piano Concerto No.27 in B flat, K595
We can’t really think of the ‘late’ style of a composer who died at 35. Even so, Mozart’s last piano concerto has an unmistakable mature grace and serenity. Its style is simpler than his musical fireworks of the 1780s, and perhaps even more graceful. On this recording Daniel Barenboim directs the Berlin Philharmonic with searching musicianship. The Piano Concerto in D, K537, ‘Coronation’, also features.
Warner Classics 2564 60679-2
Clarinet Concerto in A, K622
During Mozart’s lifetime the newly invented clarinet became a regular presence on the music scene. Mozart’s love of its creamy tone shines through in this piece written for his friend Anton Stadler. Flutes and bassoons add their own mellowness. Emma Johnson’s fine playing is accompanied by the English Chamber Orchestra under Raymond Leppard on this disc, which also includes the Flute and Harp Concerto, K299. ASV DCA 532