January 23, 2014

Mozart's Last Year Mixtape

By Michael Zwiebach

The year 1791 ended badly for Mozart: Being born 137 years before the discovery of antibiotics had its down side. But on the plus side, the great composer had a professional year the likes of which is difficult to believe, even putting aside the issue of a terminal illness: He finished the Piano Concerto in B-flat (no. 27) to start the year, and went on to write two operas, La clemenza di Tito and The Magic Flute, the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, half of a Requiem Mass, several chamber works, and a raft of dances and songs. Here’s a playlist of standards and unusual pieces from Mozart’s last year.

 

    1. Allegro from Piano Concerto 27 in B-Flat, K. 595 (movement 3); Rudolf Serkin, piano; Berlin Philharmonic, Claudio Abbado, conductor.
    Claudio Abbado, who died earlier this week, showed off his Mozart chops with the surprisingly light-fingered Rudolf Serkin in this recording.

    2. Ave Verum Corpus (Hail, true body), K.618; Choir of New College, Oxford; Edward Higginbotham, cond.
    One of the most beautiful settings of this familiar Communion hymn.

    3. Rondo in C Major for glass harmonica, flute, oboe, viola, and cello, K.617; Dennis James, glass harmonica, with the Emerson String Quartet.
    The glass harmonica, a version of tuned water glasses, was actually invented by Benjamin Franklin, in partnership with a London glassblower. Mozart’s work for it has a depth of feeling that places it in the same sphere as the Ave Verum Corpus, composed a month later.

    4 and 5. Two contredanses, K. 605a and 610.
    These little dances have subtitles: “Il trionfo delle donne” (The triumph of women”) and “Les filles malicieuses” (The mischievous girls), and are full of roguish charm.

    6. “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” (With men who feel love), duet from The Magic FluteK. 620; Rosa Mannion, soprano, Reinhard Hagen, baritone; Les Arts Florissants, William Christie, cond.
    All through the bizarre tale of adventure and fantasy and Masonic pronouncements that is Die Zauberflöte, there are these unexpectedly deep feelings, which make the opera more than the sum of its parts. This little duet, sung by Papageno and Pamina about the pleasures and duties of marriage is one.

    7. “Der Hölle Rache” (A fiery rage), from The Magic Flute; Diana Damrau, soprano.
    And then, of course, there’s the colorful fireworks of this aria, which makes the Queen of the Night really popular with operagoers, despite the unpleasant things she’s threatening here.

    8. “Non più di fiori” (No more flowers), from La clemenza di Tito, K.621; Anne Sophie von Otter, mezzo soprano.
    Mozart’s other opera from 1791 is still regularly performed, and this aria of regret, by the opera’s chief antagonist, Vitellia, is one of the highlights. She realizes the wrong she’s done to the emperor Titus, and vows to give up her power struggle.

    9. Adagio (Movement II) from Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622, Martin Fröst, clarinet; Amsterdam Sinfonia, Peter Oundjian, cond.
    Mozart the melodist supreme; they just kept coming. The clarinet (especially its cousin the basset horn) was a particular loves of Mozart’s, as the instrumentation of Vitellia’s aria above already shows.

    10. “Requiem aeternam” from Requiem in D Minor, K. 626; Berlin Philharmonic and Chorus, Claudio Abbado, conductor.
    A shadowy work, it seems to betray more of the composer’s state of mind at the time of writing than any other work of his.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.