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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Serenade no.10 in B flat major for 13 wind instruments, K.361 Gran Partita
(1. Largo – Allegro molto [9:56]; 2. Menuetto [9:21]; 3. Adagio [5:15]; 4. Menuetto: Allegretto [5:08]; 5. Romanze: Adagio [9:11]; 6. Tema con variazione [9:39]; 7. Rondo [3:23])
Wind soloists of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (Douglas Boyd, Mark Pledger (oboes); Richard Hosford, Nicholas Rodwell (clarinets); Nicholas Bucknall, Martin Robertson (basset horns); Robin O’Neill, Christopher Gunia (bassoons); Jonathan Williams, Christopher Boers, Stephen Stirling, Peter Richard (horns); Enno Senft (double-bass))/Alexander Schneider
rec. 1985?
COE RECORDS CD COE 804 [52:09]

The precise circumstances which gave rise to this glorious work are unknown.  Mozart wrote it at that crucial time of his life when he was breaking links with his Salzburg past and trying to establish himself in Vienna. It’s an important and fascinating work for many reasons.  For example, it is the first of a sequence of great works for wind ensembles, with K375 in E flat and K388 in C minor following within the next twelve months.  It’s also the first work in which Mozart used a pair of basset-horns, a kind of alto clarinet that he went on to use to great effect in his Masonic music as well as memorably in the unfinished Requiem.
It earns the title Gran Partita by virtue of being one of the composer’s most expansive instrumental works.  Indeed it may well be the longest, though no doubt some of the other serenades run it close.  However, we should be a little wary of confusing size with ‘weight’ – this is essentially a light-hearted, outdoor sort of piece, entirely living up to the basic idea of the Serenade. The term originates from the Italian word ‘sereno’, meaning ‘serene’, and was thus given to music suitable for playing on a fine, calm evening.  The two later pieces mentioned above are far more substantial, despite being shorter.
So we have an initial Allegro, with a grand slow introduction; two minuets, each with a pair of trios, on either side of a stunning Adagio; a broad Romanze; a charming Theme and Variations; and a brief, almost cursory final Presto.  I rather agree with the great writer on music Donald Mitchell, who felt that the piece would be better without this rather flip conclusion – the variations finish on a positive, emphatic note and would have made a most acceptable ending to the work.  A rare miscalculation on Mozart’s part?  Maybe, but in the absence of detailed information, we cannot know the precise performance circumstances which could well have determined factors such as the length of the work or number of movements.
What of this reading by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Alexander Schneider, the violinist and conductor who died in 1994?  This is an indubitably fine group of wind players, with outstanding contributions from, in particular, principal oboe and clarinet, respectively Douglas Boyd and Richard Hosford.  But all the members play with great character as well as precision, and it is wonderful to hear basset horns – notoriously capricious instruments – played with such true intonation as well as beauty of tone.  This is especially noticeable in the Adagio (track 3), where the melody is passed around the solo oboe, clarinet and basset, and in the first Trio of the second movement (track 2), a quartet for two clarinets and two bassets.

The Chamber Orchestra of Europe players have recorded this work twice; once as here under Schneider, then again a few years later with no conductor, but a very similar line-up (available on Teldec 2564 60866-2). The comparison is revealing, and I have to say that I prefer the later version to this one, for there is a more natural, relaxed feeling to the playing.  Furthermore, Schneider’s interpretation has one or two really annoying mannerisms, such as the ‘expressive’ slowing down for the gentle phrase that answers the bold opening of the first Minuet (track two).  This is distracting the first time, but the nature of this movement means that, in all, this is heard no less than eight times, and by the last repeat, I found it unbearable!  On the other hand, Schneider is oddly off-hand in the second trio of the other minuet (track 4, 3:25), one of the most delightful passages in the work, and where the players need a little more time to shape their phrases; they don’t get it.
One of the most problematic movements is the Romanze, with its slow triple time.  It can easily drag if the chosen tempo is too slow, and that is very much the case in Schneider’s performance.  Again, listening to the CoE’s later recording, I found a flowing tempo that allowed for plenty of expression, yet kept the music moving.  Erring in the opposite direction, Schneider selects an uncomfortably hurried tempo for the incomparable penultimate variation of the sixth movement.  Here Mozart creates the most extraordinary textures by his scoring for basset horns, French horns and bassoons together, but the speed does not allow Douglas Boyd’s oboe solo the sense of breadth it requires, and a little of the magic is lost.  Furthermore, both Boyd and clarinettist Hosford sound ill at ease with Schneider’s interpretation of the ornaments in their solo parts, which are very fussily done in places such as this.
A good performance, then, with many fine virtues, but not a great one.  There is some strong competition, with a splendid version on Decca from Hogwood and Amadeus Winds playing on period instruments.  If you do want modern instruments, de Waart and the Netherlands Wind Ensemble are, as ever, marvellously stylish, or there is Sir Charles Mackerras’s reissued version on Telarc with the Orchestra of St.Luke’s, full of sparkle and fun.
Gwyn Parry-Jones



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