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Noteworthy Serenade

July 29, 2008

The second installment of this season's Midsummer Mozart Festival took off on Thursday at Mission Santa Clara. Unlike the first program, this concert featured only two works — and for good reason. The Serenade for 12 wind instruments and a double bass, K. 361, lasts for almost an hour, longer than any of Mozart's large symphonies scored for a full orchestra.
Unlike symphonies or concertos, the serenades, divertimenti, cassations, and other utilitarian pieces were written to accompany special occasions, usually outdoors: weddings, birthdays, coronations, and the like. There is quite a controversy regarding the date of composition of this seven-movement Serenade and, consequently, the occasion it was intended for. One theory maintains that Mozart composed it in 1782 as a wedding gift to his dear wife, Constanze. Another theory states that Mozart wrote it two years later for an entirely different event. Strong arguments go back and forth, but I personally root for the former. It's so sweet …

In any case, it is always gratifying to hear the Serenade live, since it is rarely performed in regular symphony or chamber concerts. Its span is too large for an introductory piece at the beginning of a symphony concert, and its instrumentation is too sparse to fill up an entire half of an orchestra program. On the other hand, 12 wind instruments (including four French horns) are not a typical chamber music setting. That is why, while often recorded, this Serenade can rarely be heard live outside of Mozart festivals. This program was, therefore, a special treat. It also gave the listeners a chance to hear and see the basset horns — an uncommon variety of the tenor clarinet. The two basset horns rested daintily on floor spikes and produced a melting, richly colored, and irresistibly appealing tone.

The complexity of this score, combined with an unmitigated exposure of every instrumental part, turns the Serenade into a virtuosic undertaking, but the members of the group passed the test with flying colors. Led by the music director of the festival, conductor George Cleve, they captured the essence of Mozart's elegant, warm, and jovial writing and presented a vigorous and involved account of the piece.

The third movement, Adagio, was simply stunning: Breathtakingly beautiful solos of the oboe (Laura Griffiths), the clarinet (Mark Brandenburg), and the basset horn (Janet Averett) flowed with operatic eloquence. Another magical moment occurred at the end of the sixth movement in the slow variation, when an exquisitely shaped oboe solo (Griffiths again) was soaring above a gently quivering accompaniment.
Powerful Brahms Cadenza
The rest of the evening featured the pianist Nikolai Demidenko (who is becoming more and more familiar to Bay Area audiences) in Mozart's C-minor Concerto, K. 491. When Mozart played his piano concertos, he did not need to write down the cadenzas in advance — he simply improvised them on the spot. As a result, we have his own cadenzas for only those concertos that he gave to other pianists to play. In these cases, Mozart often supplied written cadenzas along with the score.

Unfortunately, no pianists at the time asked him to jot down a cadenza for this particular concerto, so it was left to later performers and composers to fill in the void. Many composers stepped up, among them Mozart's pupil Hummel, as well as Fauré, Smetana, and Schnittke.

Demidenko chose a cadenza by Brahms. This fascinating addition to Mozart's score begins innocently enough, but then it moves, gradually and inexorably, toward a colossal explosion in the end. Demidenko played the Concerto on a Fazioli, an extravagantly expensive instrument from a boutique Italian company. The pianist is currently enamored of the Fazioli pianos and would not play on anything else. Indeed, the massive sound produced by this piano is awe-inspiring. Some might even say that the Brahms cadenza, amplified by Fazioli, was rather over the top.

In my opinion, however, the powerful cadenza perfectly suited Demidenko's approach to the Concerto. Serious and intense, the pianist created a high drama that only intermittently became less gripping. Even the slower than usual tempo of the finale thickened the atmosphere of looming tragedy. George Cleve went along with this reading, supporting the soloist with admirable sensitivity and confidence.

The dark mood of the Concerto spilled over into Demidenko's first encore and turned Chopin's stylishly nostalgic mazurka into a smoldering miniballade. The second encore, Scarlatti's D-major Sonata, ended the spell; Demidenko delivered it with a dazzling and droll flourish.

Anatole Leikin is Professor of Music at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He has published in various musicological journals and essay collections worldwide and recorded piano works of Scriabin, Chopin, and Cope. His critically acclaimed books The Performing Style of Alexander Scriabin and The Mystery of Chopin's Préludes were recently published by Ashgate Publishing (UK) and reissued by Routledge (UK). Dr. Leikin also serves as an editor for The Complete Chopin — A New Critical Edition (Peters, UK).

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