Concert I Program Notes

by Robert Hurwitz


W. A. Mozart (1756–1791)
Overture to La Clemenza di Tito

In the summer of his last year, Mozart received a final operatic commission. At the behest of the Bohemian Estates, he was to compose a festive opera for the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia. The task was to have been complete in four weeks' time, and was to employ a prescribed libretto, The Clemency of Titus, which had been written by the imperial poet Metastasio in 1734.

The constraints of time under which Mozart was forced to work required music both of brevity and of simplicity. Both the vocal parts and the orchestral parts were necessarily modest, and because of this, some critics have spoken disparagingly of the music, claiming that the work is not only a product of haste but also of fatigue. There is no doubt that Tito was composed at breakneck speed, and that some shortcuts were necessarily taken. (For example, the secco recitatives were all written by Mozart's pupil Süssmayr.) Nevertheless, Mozart was at the same time working on both the Requiem and The Magic Flute, and nobody has ever claimed that fatigue hampered the quality of those masterpieces. Tito was, in fact, highly regarded, both by Mozart himself and by his contemporaries.

The overture is very much a sister work to its counterpart in The Magic Flute. Both demonstrate qualities that are both distinctive and festive.


Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975) (arr. Barshai)
Chamber Symphony, Op. 73a

The Chamber Symphony Op. 73a is an arrangement of Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 3 in F major (Op. 73), composed in 1946. One of his longest works of chamber music, the quartet was completed in 1946, shortly after Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9 had been censured by Soviet authorities. For the premiere Shostakovich renamed the five movements in the fashion of a war saga, most likely to avoid accusations of "formalism" by the censors. The names he adopted were:

  1. Blithe ignorance of the future cataclysm
  2. Rumblings of unrest and anticipation
  3. Forces of war unleashed
  4. In memory of the dead
  5. The eternal question: Why? And for what?

The originally unnamed movements have the following tempo indications:

  1. Allegretto
  2. Moderato con moto
  3. Allegro non troppo
  4. Adagio -
  5. Moderato

The chamber symphony arrangement (Op. 73a) of this quartet was made by Rudolph Barshai, founding violist of the Borodin Quartet. To the body of string instruments, Barshai added flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bassoon, and harp. The added color of the winds brings the work closer in sound to that of Shostakovich's symphonies. Each movement is true to its name, with the first quite light-hearted, the second a shocking contrast, followed by two movements in which the mood is at turns aggressive and dejected. Hope emerges timidly in the final movement, which concludes with music that is touching and subdued.


W. A. Mozart (1756–1791)
Piano Concerto No. 26, K. 537 in D Major "Coronation"

The "Coronation" concerto was one of only two piano concerti Mozart composed in the last five years of his life. This is puzzling, since in the previous four years he had composed fourteen! The significant reduction in concerto production may well be due to the increased demand opera was placing on Mozart's compositional time—The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così Fan Tutte, The Magic Flute and La Clemenza Di Tito, were all completed after his previous concerto, the famous C Minor—but this is only informed speculation. At any rate, Mozart began composing the 26th concerto in the spring of 1787, and performed it for the first time in February 1788. The work did not acquire its nickname until a second performance, when Mozart played it for the coronation of Leopold II as Holy Roman Emperor. Shortly thereafter, it became one of his most popular keyboard concertos, particularly during the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, but critical opinion as to its quality has been mixed.

Because of its basic simplicity and pleasantness, generations of critics have dismissed it as second-rate Mozart. Simon Keefe, in The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia, tells us that the well-known critic Arthur Hutchings, in his 1948 book on Mozart's piano concertos, "wished he had 'the end seats', regretting 'that Mozart stooped so low." In contrast, Michael Steinberg, in 1998, cautioned us not to confuse the lighter touch of this concerto with triviality, noting that the piece's reputation of simplicity is at least partly due to the unfinished nature of the piano part. Since Mozart was himself the performer, there was no need to write out the solo part completely. It was left to the publisher of the concerto to produce the final product. Nowadays, soloists, after intensive study of the music, often provide their own version of the missing passages.

The first movement's orchestral exposition presents all of the material to be heard in the movement except for the beginning of the secondary theme, which is reserved for the soloist. Some surprising, yet momentary chromatic touches in this tuneful movement have consequences later in the piece, when some unusual harmonic shifts, particularly in the eventful development, appear. The delicate and graceful middle movement is in ABA form, and the finale, a rondo, balances melodiousness with ever more demanding virtuosity.


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