Clarinet Concerto in A major, K. 622
Related Artists/CompaniesWolfgang Amadeus Mozart
About the Work
Mozart's Adagio and Rondo-which he wrote for the blind glass harmonica player Marianne Kirchgessner-represent music of the same vintage as the Clarinet Concerto, his last essay in the concerto format. Somehow, during what would be his final months of life, Mozart continued to turn out one masterpiece after another, each laying out a unique sound world-just think of the different terrains explored in The Magic Flute, La Clemenza di Tito, the Ave Verum, and the Requiem. Of course, as one of those miraculous products of 1791, and as his final instrumental work, the Clarinet Concerto has been saddled with especially melancholy associations. Mozart completed it just two months before his death.
In a sense, though, the Clarinet Concerto's origins go back to the 1770s, when Mozart first fell in love with the sound of the instrument. By the time he was a resident of Vienna, he became acquainted with the playing style of a fellow freelancer, Anton Stadler, a pioneer in the history of the clarinet who introduced technical innovations for his instrument. Stadler designed a special clarinet with an extended range two tones lower than that of the standard clarinet, allowing for a richer bottom range. For Stadler and his advanced instrument, Mozart composed both the Concerto and its cousin, the beloved Clarinet Quintet, K. 581 (as well as clarinet solos accompanying a pair of arias in La clemenza di Tito).
It's interesting to note that, a full century later, another Vienna-based composer would be inspired to write some of his most delectable final works thanks to the artistry of a clarinetist: that would of course be Johannes Brahms, who wrote his sonatas, Trio, and Quintet featuring the instrument for Richard Mühlfeld. Brahms compared the sound Mühlfeld could produce to biting into a ripe peach. For his part, Mozart was enamored above all of the warmth and resemblance to the singing voice he heard in Stadler's playing.
The "late style" exemplified by Mozart's Concerto-how odd the phrase seems for an artist who was still only 35 at the time!-conveys a rarefied simplicity that can be gained only after much experience. Needless complexity (whose musical analogue might be empty virtuosic display) has been pared away. The cliché of "not a superfluous note" actually applies to an astonishing degree to this score. Inspired by Stadler's musicianship and his special instrument, Mozart makes the soloist so integral to the fabric of the work that there is no need for separate cadenza spotlights-yet in the process of hearing the work performed, we encounter the full scope of the clarinetist's artistry, from cantabile lines of melody to quicksilver figurations.
Drawing on the wealth of knowledge he had accrued in perfecting the classical piano concerto, Mozart masterfully balances and blends soloist with ensemble, achieving a deeply satisfying variety of lyricism and polyphony-all framed within an elegantly proportionate structure. He thins the orchestral ensemble down to pairs of flutes and bassoons (no piquant oboes to the mix, no additional clarinets), a pair of horns, and strings. An often-remarked touch of subtlety, for example, is his careful use of the double basses, which he sometimes omits instead relying on their default role of "backing up" the cello line. No wonder this Concerto has come to stand for an ideal meeting ground between composer and performer. Whenever rehearsing it afresh, says Widmann, "Just when you think you really know this work inside-out, you always end up discovering something new."
The opening Allegro unfolds with a serenity of tone and visionary economy. The main theme itself, so suggestive of a nursery rhyme in its utter simplicity, nevertheless is unfolded and reconstituted to reveal itself capable of expressing tremendous emotional complexity. It's in the Adagio-a rare tempo marking for Mozart, which he also used for the dreamlike slow movement of his last Violin Concerto (from 1775)-that Mozartean ambiguity is at its most breathtaking. Cast in the most basic song form, with a coda, the music reaches to "the deep heart's core," to borrow a famous phrase from W.B. Yeats. Its D-major setting also overturns commonplace assumptions about the happy-sad polarities of major versus minor tonality. In the rondo finale, Mozart stages the soloist-ensemble relationship with continually fresh invention. This is the composer Hermann Hesse placed at the forefront of the "Immortals" in his novel Steppenwolf -that band of creative artists whose work, a beacon in a lonely universe, has withstood the test of time, who seem indeed to exist beyond time.