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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Serenade in Bb major for 13 Winds, Gran Partita K.361/370a
Members of the Orchestra of St.Luke’s/Sir Charles Mackerras
rec. Performing Arts Centre, Theatre C, SUNY Purchase, New York, 1-2 July 1993
TELARC CD-80359 [50:37]

As he enters his eighties, Sir Charles Mackerras’s long and brilliant career can be seen to have a number of strands. Great 20th century opera, especially Janáček and Shostakovich, has been a life-long mission; but significantly, he trained as an oboist, and he has always had a great enthusiasm for wind music, which, added to his deep love of Mozart, gives this issue special meaning.

In this early 1990s recording, he was working with a wonderful group of players from the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in New York. From the first chord it is easy to sense the empathy between conductor and ensemble. There is no attempt at ‘authenticity’ in the narrow sense; yet the whole performance is alive with the true Mozartian spirit. Rhythms bounce, reeds fizz, melodies sing intoxicatingly and the glorious colours Mozart relished in his wind instruments are vividly exploited.

The honorary title of this grandest of Mozart’s ‘entertainment’ pieces, ‘Serenade for Thirteen Winds’, has always been misleading. There are quite definitely twelve winds on this recording, plus a string bass, and this is generally held to be the most workable version, though Mozart’s autograph is not completely clear on the point. Some conductors have used a contra-bassoon, but, though this adds a splendid organ-like depth to chords such as those at the start, it doesn’t have the flexibility or the general resonance of the string bass.

There is a natural, unfussy quality to Mackerras’s direction of the work, yet his tempi are chosen with the utmost care. After a spacious introduction, his Allegro has a brisk, even impatient tread, and contrasts are made much of, in dynamics as in articulation. Both minuets (2nd and 4th movements) are delicious, full of wit and charm. This is a real strength of the performance, for it is in these movements that some versions sag, with conductors and players seeming to go through the motions. No danger of that here.

The glorious Adagio is beautifully done; all the solo lines are expressively moulded, yet Mackerras always keeps the music moving, never wallows. Here, as in the Romanze of the fifth movement, an ideal natural balance is achieved, which allows the players to relax in the knowledge that everything of importance can be heard – never easy with such a disparate group ... and of course a fine recording helps enormously. Sir Charles also seizes any opportunity to bring out the darker moments in the music, such as the restless central portion of the Romanze.

The disc is completed by a delightful set of variations in movement six, and a full tilt final Allegro molto, which seems to say in the clearest terms ‘Come on, it’s nearly closing time’, a sincere emotion that not only Mozart himself, but every wind player who has ever blown a note will have experienced in all its depth.

This is ‘background music’ raised to the level of the sublime. In a performance such as we have here, it’s simply an unmissable treat.

Gwyn Parry-Jones



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