i. Allegro ii. Romanze (Larghetto) iii. Rondo (Allegro)
We are fortunate that the tradition of composers being inspired by and writing for soloists continues to this day; twentieth century examples include violin concertos written for David Oistrakh by a vast range of composers including Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and a similar collection of cello concertos for Mstislav Rostropovich. The late former conductor of the MSO John Wilbraham had a number of trumpet concertos dedicated to him, including that of Malcolm Arnold, and Benjamin Britten wrote his Serenade for tenor, horn and strings for possibly the finest-ever exponent of the Mozart horn concertos, Dennis Brain, whose cadenzas will be played tonight.
Mozart’s inspiration for his horn concertos (together with the horn quintet) was Joseph Leutgeb (1732-1811) – indeed the two knew each other for almost the whole of Mozart’s life, Leutgeb working in the Salzburg Court Orchestra during Mozart’s precocious performing childhood. Despite his success the horn player was almost constantly without money and both Mozart and his father made him loans at various times, as well as making fun of his naivety by playing jokes – the dedication for No 2 read: ‘WA Mozart took pity on the ox, ass and fool Leutgeb in Vienna 27 May 1783’, and the fourth concerto, K495, was written in a collection of different-coloured inks, probably in order to wrongfoot him.
The horn in the time of Mozart was much less sophisticated than the instrument we know today. Having evolved from the hunting horn – only capable of a few arpeggiated notes in the familiar hunting calls – Mozart’s horn used crooks to increase and decrease the length of piping, enabling some changes of key; the range of notes was largely produced by the player with a variety of lip vibrations through the embouchure, filled out by adjustments of a hand inside the bell of the instrument. It wasn’t until approximately 1820 that the invention of valves allowed a complete range of semitones; knowledge of this fact only increases one’s admiration for Leutgeb and his contemporaries.
K447 is scored for two clarinets and two bassoons plus strings, giving it a slightly richer and more reflective quality than No 4, K495 – perhaps the best-known of the four concertos partly because of the Flanders and Swann comic song Ill Wind, based on its Rondo finale – which is scored for two oboes and two orchestral horns. In terms of its location in Mozart’s catalogue of works No 3 was written only a matter of weeks after his great C minor Mass, K427. As with all of Mozart’s many concertos, whether for piano, violin, oboe or clarinet, it distils the essence of the solo instrument as he knew it, here exploring the horn’s aristocratic richness and touching lyricism before capitalising upon the hunting-horn connection in the rollicking and witty finale.
The opening orchestral tutti introduces the work with suave assurance, the two main themes arriving in quick succession, before a series of anticipatory gestures in the strings introduce the solo horn, which reintroduces and expands on the two main themes. The short development throws the key structure into the melting pot orchestrally for a short while before the recap leads to a cadenza for the soloist. The coda rounds the movement off elegantly.
The slow movement, in the key of A flat, is a Romance, a Rondo in all but name, poised and lyrical with the horn leading from the outset.
The finale is first cousin to that of K495, its genial Rondo form – including an episode which reintroduces the main theme of the Romance at double speed – defying anyone to listen without a smile on their face!
Notes by HDJ 27 January 2018