IN: Reviews

Still Spasstich After 200 Years


Todd Williams (file photo)
Todd Williams (file photo)

In “Mozart’s Diversions” Aston Magna returned to the Slosberg Recital Hall at Brandeis with the promise of an evening of light entertainment. An oblique meditation on struggle instead ensued, something not typically associated with Mozart.

The Horn Quintet in a pairing with the K. 522 “Musical Joke” constituted an unusual first half. The Horn Quintet, K. 407 from 1782, was one of several pieces (including four Concertos) written for Joseph Leutgeb, a long-time friend of Mozart’s. Its odd instrumentation includes only one violin but two violas, in addition to the cello. This gives the horn special prominence, as the violin functions as a secondary voice to horn, while the violas provide rich sonority but little competition. The three-movement form was more typical for orchestral works than for chamber music, and the relentless virtuosity demanded of the horn player confirms suspicions that the work was aspiring to the condition of a concerto.

Soloist Todd Williams gave an enlightening pre-concert talk where he demonstrated the ringing natural harmonic notes of the valveless natural horn, showing how far apart they were from one another at the lower end of the instrument. He then showed how the use of the hand in the bell and flexibility of lip made it possible to add more notes, culminating in a fascinating chromatic scale. “Fascinating” because although the notes ascended in a steady pattern, each succeeding note possessed a timbre different from its neighbor. The natural notes remained clear and bright, but those more distant from the harmonic series were “covered”, muffled or muted in varying degrees. A composer writing for natural horn has several strategies. The music can stay high in the instrument’s range, where there are more natural harmonics: see the Second Brandenburg Concerto. Alternatively, one can just go with the instrument and stick to the large natural intervals, which makes for less harmonic freedom, and often sounds like “hunting” music, which stays close to the harmonic series (see Mozart’s father’s Horn Concerto, whose third movement Dennis Brain performed on a section of garden hose at a Hoffnung Festival). In K. 407 Mozart does not spare the horn any difficulties: the player must cover a lot of melodic and harmonic distance and the tonal qualities of the notes are at times surprising or unexpected. Williams played with unerring beauty of tone, but the sheer variety of sounds gave the performance a wild, rough edge that is at odds with the vision of Mozart as a nonpareil of “grace and elegance” (in the pre-concert words of Aston Magna Artistic Director Daniel Stepner).

Julie Leven, violin; Stepner and David Miller, viola; and Loretta O’Sullivan, cello chose not to respond to this edgy sound, producing rather a sound that was homogenous and deferential. This made for a few moments of deep beauty in the slow movement, but left one wishing for a more engagement in the outer ones.

In K. 522 “Ein musikalischer Spaß” for two horns and strings, Linda Dempf joined Williams on horn, and Anne Trout added her bass, while Stepner moved over to take the lead violin. “A Musical Goof” is how I like to translate the title: it’s not really a joke, but a satire of varying degrees of subtlety and seriousness. The musicians played it pretty much straight, which is how it should be done. The allows the listener to be lulled into hearing it as a “serious” work, so that the less obvious jokes—a cadence approached by the wrong chord, passages where the melody seems to have been left out by mistake—can be distinguished. The audience had no trouble hearing the catastrophic horn entries, the blowhard violin cadenza, the absolute collapse at the end.  There’s something a little cruel in Mozart’s humor: the kaleidoscope of clumsiness must be mocking someone, and there’s so much impeccably deployed incompetence that the profusion feels like a brag, a show-off.  But ultimately the joy of laughing along with jokes that still land more than 200 years later overcome any reservations. I don’t know if I need to hear K. 522 again any time soon, but I’m glad to have heard it on this occasion.

The apparent effortlessness in Mozart’s writing is deceptive. Most musicians find the prospect of playing Mozart intimidating, because that effortlessness in the notes requires immense work, even struggle, on the part of the performers to realize. The best thing about hearing the Divertimento in B-flat, K. 287 for two horns and strings, after K. 522 was hearing how Mozart’s strategies here weren’t all that different from the comic piece. It made the listener more aware of just how careful Mozart is, how attentive to detail and nuance, without giving any sense of effort. When juxtaposed against the cleverly designed stupidities of K. 522, one might detect the effort required to keep from falling into banality. This is a long work of great craftsmanship and occasional breath-taking beauty but it took the players quite a long time to settle into it. Intonation was very uneven despite two bouts of retuning, the horns were too often too prominent (a problem not in evidence in K. 522), and attacks were often not together. Not until the beautifully realized fourth movement, an aria for violin played with restrained emotion and tonal purity by Stepner, did the ensemble finally come together, a surely unintended but instructional example of the effort needed to project effortlessness.

Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.

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  1. An accurate and enlightening assessment. I’m now sorry we missed the pre-concert demonstration.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — July 3, 2016 at 7:26 am

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