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Boston Symphony Orchestra

Evening of Mozart

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Mozart, Symphony No. 35 in D “Haffner”, Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat

“Jeunehomme”, Serenade No. 10 in B-flat for winds “Gran Partita”.

Conducted by Bernard Haitink

Piano solo by Maria Joao Pires

Symphony Hall, April 16, 1999

Mozart is no longer just a name: it’s a word. Stereotypically, Mozart’s music is thought to be light and breezy, mostly in major keys with charming and playful chord progressions and melodies. But there’s also a different Mozart, the one who wrote G-minor symphonies No. 25 and 40, Piano Concerto No. 20, and the A-minor and C-minor piano sonatas: all tremendously expressive and turbulent works, full of dissonances, sudden key changes, and the general air of malevolent fate. It’s most interesting when these two modes combine and the two styles of writing collide. As a result, they miraculously enrich each other, and that is when Mozart is at his best. The Boston Symphony concert successfully navigated the watershed between Mozart the sunny poet and Mozart the tormented genius.

One danger when selecting Mozart’s pieces for a concerto is that a good deal of his works are overplayed. After all, with so many excellent performances of, say, Eine Kleine Nacht Musik available on CDs, why go through a trouble to make another? That’s probably why Boston Symphony went for slightly less popular works: Symphony No. 35 in D Haffner, Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Jeunehomme, and the Serenade No. 10 in B-flat for winds, sometimes referred to as “Gran Partita”. Funnily enough, each work is performed by fewer musicians than the preceeding one, and, more curiously, each is more interesting than the previous one.

The first piece of the evening, the Haffner Symphony, started its life not as a symphony, but rather as a serenade: a piece composed solely to be used as a background music for an official function. Mozart later reworked it into a symphony by cutting two movements and re-working the orchestral arrangement in the rest. Unchanged was the fact that very little in Haffner is designed to reward an attentive listener; after all, very few people would take care to listen to the internal themes and overall structure of the music played over a fancy dinner.

Fortunately, Boston Symphony is a first-class orchestra, and even when the music doesn’t provide much large-scale enjoyment, the performance is never engrossing to listen to. Under the thoroughly professional guidance of conductor Bernard Haitink (BSO Principal Guest Conductor and the full-time music director of London’s Royal Opera House), the balance is perfect between the solos and the tutti, with the first violin being particularly impressive in the first movement, and the woodwinds in the second. The finale is the best part, not only fun to listen to, but also memorable, using a frequent trick of starting quietly and then segueing into forte.

The second piece of the evening, the Ninth Piano Concerto, is more rewarding -- but I had a problem with the performance. The main thematic element in the whole work is a thrill figure, and the pianist Maria Joan Pires chose to interpret the whole work as derived from that gesture. Every piano passage either starts or ends in a thrill-like two-note figure, and the overall line shape is reminiscent of the thrill as well. This interpretation makes a whole lot of sense, it’s clever and illuminating, and it highlights Mozart’s gift for underlying structure (which was missing in Haffner). On the other hand, a defining quality of a thrill is that none of its specific notes is important by itself, and as a result, some of the essential tonal clarity was lost.

Again, the finale set the things right. In the very middle of the usually boisterous Rondo, Mozart suddenly switches gears and the music changes both its key and meter, becoming a minuet. This section is played cantabile, and it’s utterly lovely. In contrast to the surrounding presto the finale acquires the character of wistfulness and longing -- while being written in major key!

Haffner is written for a full-size symphony orchestra; the piano concerto is scored for full strings, two oboes, and two horns -- and that’s it. The third piece of the concert is the mammoth Gran Partita wind serenade, scored for thirteen instruments only: twelve winds and a double bass.

This serenade has seven movements, is nearly one hour long, and was truly the highlight of the evening. Each successful movement, written in a standard classical form (sonata allegro, minuet, romance), has a darker section in it, and the size and importance of this section grows with each movement. There is barely a hint of darkness in the opening Allegro. In each of the two minuets, there is a trio that sounds almost spooky. By the time we reach the fifth part, Romance, the central section fully inhabits the minor key, with all the elements falling into place. Even the double bass, which I found to be a bit too out of place in the beginning (the difference of tembre is an issue), is perfectly used here, with its ostinato being the main dissonant element.

The finale combines most of the techniques from the rest of the serenade, with the darkness nearly forgotten -- yet still discernible. By the way, a few years after composing “Gran Partita”, Mozart would return to the genre of serenade for winds and write a truly striking work, the K.388 in C minor, largely dissonant,violent and unforgettable.