Pavlova Wind Quintet, with Glynne Butt piano, present:
Mozart Quintet for piano and wind K452
Beethoven Quintet for piano and wind Op 16
Mozart writing to his father Leopold “I consider it the best work I have ever written…”
The Quintet was first presented on April 1, 1784, as part of a mammoth concert of Mozart’s works entirely new or new to Vienna, in the capital’s Burgtheater. The playbill listed a “Symphony with Trumpets and Drums” (probably the “Haffner,” K. 385), a Piano Concerto (K. 451); the “Linz” Symphony; a group of piano improvisations by Mozart; and another symphony, possibly the “Paris” (K. 297) of 1778, not previously heard in Vienna.
K. 452 is in the three movements of a concerto. The first movement is brief, with a slow, sonorous introduction, in which each of the five players is allowed to strut his/her stuff, with a powerful concluding wind tutti over the piano. A gratifying surprise comes after only 20-odd measures have passed with the succeeding allegro, a tour-de-force of variety and inspiration, each wind allotted its brief theme – with such a mixed ensemble Mozart had no choice but to keep the individual statements as compact as possible – and the piano as partner rather than master, the instruments presented in pairs, in combinations of three, four, and five. While the key of B-flat is in Mozart usually a vehicle for frivolous thoughts, in the second movement of K. 452 it is employed to convey a sadly sweet mellowness. The thematically rich rondo finale is the longest movement of the three, crowned by a long cadenza for all five instruments.
That Mozart worked assiduously at getting this “study” right is affirmed by the extensive sketches that exist for the first movement, examples of reworking hardly being common among the composer’s works. The impression of ease and spontaneity – certainly present here – is not always easily achieved, even by Mozart.
Modelled on Mozart’s Quintet, K. 452, which is scored for the same ensemble (oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn, plus piano), there are as many differences as similarities between the two scores. Mozart was already an acknowledged master in 1784 when his Quintet appeared. The 26-year-old Beethoven had published piano trios and sonatas by this time, but his fame had come primarily from his dazzling displays of improvisational skill and keyboard virtuosity. He was still exploring instrumental sonorities before setting out on his voyage of symphonic composition. Opus 16 offered a chance for him to showcase his composing and his performing prowess.
The first movement shows Beethoven making a serious attempt to be serious. The extended slow introduction, marked Grave, produces an opening movement that is as long as the two following movements combined. The winds start the proceedings, after which the piano quickly makes itself known with a solo flourish. Thereafter, for the most part, the forces trade thematic materials in democratic fashion, until another cadenza-like flourish from the piano leads into the Allegro proper. An invigorating and sprightly theme is stated and developed in a refreshingly non-dramatic way. After an exposition repeat, things become more agitated and the dynamic level also rises as the development begins. A striding passage reminds us briefly that E-flat is the same key Beethoven will use for his “Eroica” Symphony, still seven years in the future. Might we even hear a few pre-echoes of the “Emperor” Concerto, another work in E-flat? The coda gives the horn an arpeggiated figure, heard earlier in the piano; what is idiomatic for the keyboard is treacherous for the horn, and it is as thrilling to hear as it must be chilling to play.
The Andante cantabile offers opportunities for each instrument to sing, both solo and as a member of the ensemble. The delicate theme introduced by the piano returns to separate the episodes and initiate a new wave of rhapsodic dialogue among the conversationalists.
We end with a game. The Rondo’s nonchalant theme soon picks up speed as it is embellished and embroidered by the piano and the winds in a whirl of activity. As in a piano concerto, Beethoven leaves room for a solo cadenza in the first half of the finale. It is reported that the composer (who played the piano part himself when the work was new) would indulge in some extra improvisational activity, fooling the wind players, who – at first amused and then disgruntled – were waiting to come back in.