Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Mozart's last year was one of his most prolific composing periods — almost as if he knew he was racing against the clock. By that time, the clarinet, with its fascinating chameleon character, had become probably his favorite instrument — certainly his favorite wind instrument. It was quite a newcomer in 1791, having only been introduced into orchestras around 1770.
One of its finest players was Anton Stadler, whom Mozart had met in 1784 and subsequently befriended. Stadler seems to have been a rather shady character, and Mozart's wife and family disapproved of him, especially when he borrowed a considerable sum of money from the composer who was himself deep in debt. But Mozart liked Stadler's lighthearted nature and greatly admired his artistry. For Stadler he composed his best-loved chamber work, the Clarinet Quintet, as well as the Clarinet Concerto.
Stadler loved the clarinet's low register and designed a slightly longer version, known as the basset clarinet, which added two more pitches on the bottom. And so Mozart wrote his concerto for this modified clarinet, giving much emphasis to its lower range. Throughout, he showed his great love and thorough understanding of the instrument's special qualities: its singing ability and sparkling agility, its capacity to move easily between comedy and tragedy. However, sometime after his death, his original score was lost. The concerto we hear today is a version Mozart's publisher edited so it could be played by clarinets without Stadler's low extension.
A mood of gracious lyricism prevails in the first movement. Mozart chose a softer-toned orchestral ensemble — gentle flutes instead of the more penetrating oboes, no brass except for two horns — to set his soloist in high relief. Graceful, flowing melodies abound, exploiting the clarinet's rich singing tone. But soon after its entrance, the clarinet flies free of the orchestra's theme to show off its coloratura abilities and the exciting contrasts between its lowest and highest notes. There is also melancholy in this outwardly serene music, and after its initial gymnastics, the clarinet expresses this in a slightly mournful melody in the minor mode.
The clarinet's most haunting tones are displayed in the Adagio second movement, one of Mozart's most sublime slow movements. Here the clarinet becomes a great operatic diva, its drooping phrases singing of loneliness and loss. Mozart experienced considerable depression in his last year and had often remarked that he did not expect a long life. His music frequently expresses a profound sense of life's transitory nature and the sadness that hides behind beauty — and never more poignantly than here.
Such thoughts of mortality are mostly pushed aside in the merry rondo finale. The clarinet leads off with a chirpy rondo refrain exploiting the instrument's comic side. But high comedy also includes room for more serious emotions, as Mozart had demonstrated over and over in his great comic operas. And thus, between returns of this refrain, he develops other melodies in surprisingly moving ways, and his adventurous harmonies wander into darker minor-key territory. However, Mozart never forgets who is the star and gives the clarinetist plentiful opportunities to show off his fleet virtuosity.
Instrumentation: Two flutes, two bassoons, two horns and strings.