The word “sublime” is applied so often to Mozart’s greatest wind serenade, the “Gran Partita” for 13 instruments, that we don’t consider the genre’s humble origins as party music. Being a house Kapellmeister, Haydn produced many divertimentos and Parthie, some for outdoor as well as indoor performance, and in advance of composing the “Gran Partita,” Mozart had his own run at similar entertainments scored for strings or winds. The leap into a seven-movement serenade, either in 1781 or 1782, perhaps as a present for his bride Constanze, was a major advance. From the majestic opening Largo the music announces itself on a symphonic scale, and its imaginative range is unprecedented for anything like a divertimento, much less a party. Mozart must have realized that he was taking yet another step away from being a liveried hireling, and the first known public performance of the “Gran Partita,” in 1784 under the auspices of the famed clarinetist Anton Stadler, took place at a theater, not a nobleman’s home.
This new release from the highly skilled Octet of the European Union Chamber Orchestra, who deliver a delightful reading, made me think stylistically for a moment. How grand should his partita be? (No one can say where the name comes from, although certainly not the composer.) Traditional readings like the glorious ones under Furtwangler from 1947 and Klemperer from 1963 (both EMI/Warner) look the music’s significance very seriously, perhaps too much so. As tempos slowed and profundity rose, the party side of Mozart’s creation sank out of sight. The music-making was inspired, yet, with repeats, the “Gran Partita” lasts around 50 minutes—a long time to sit with furrowed brow. How far the pendulum has swung can be heard on a recent recording under Trevor Pinnock (Linn), which is so perky and insouciant that the piece becomes a frivolity at times. (In 40:1 Jerry Dubins called the Pinnock account “probably the most superficial, glib reading of the piece I’ve ever heard.”)
I’d like to think that this new reading, under London-based conductor Santiago Mantas, owes its lilting, relaxed air to his studies in Vienna. Having a conductor is crucial in a work of this scope— admittedly, recordings led by one of the musicians, usually the first clarinet, can be impressive—and Mantas nicely balances the general optimism of the “Gran Partita” with its excursions into stateliness, melancholy, wistfulness, and self-reflective seriousness. Nothing unusual happens in terms of basics like tempo and dynamics, yet this reading sustains its interest over the long span, which is what the music needs. Incidentally, the informed program notes tell us that Mozart’s manuscript assigned the continuo to a double bass, even indicating pizzicato passages, so the old practice of using a contrabassoon, although allowed in the published score, wasn’t the original instrumentation.
A little further down the Köchel trail in 1781, Mozart wrote his next masterpiece of Harmoniemusik, this lime for an octet composed of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns. The oboes were added as a revision of the original scoring for wind sextet. (The fact that we know the precise date of composition, October 15, 1781, means that recent musicology, which dates the “Gran Partita” to 1782, would reverse the numbering of Serenade No. 10 and No. 11.) There’s also the charming anecdote that on his name day that year, October 31, some musicians told Mozart to leave his outside door open, and around 11 o’clock as he was about to retire, he got a surprise “in the most pleasing fashion imaginable with the first chord in E flat.” That performance of K 375 is unique in music history, but we get a surprise here, too, because the booklet proclaims that this is the “premiere recording of the complete Serenade.”
The main reason for this, besides the excision of a faulty extra measure of music, is the inclusion of the second trio in the Menuetto, which was omitted when the octet version was transcribed from an imperfect manuscript of the sextet version. All is mended now, and Mantas leads a perfor¬mance as musical and alive as the “Gran Partita.” The highly respected producer/engineer Tony Faulkner delivers faithful, vivid sound. On every count this is one of my preferred CDs of two lovable masterpieces.