Nachtmusik was a term Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart sometimes used in preference to Serenade or Notturno. The connotations are the same, of music for evening time, performed out of doors, to loved ones, friends, or patrons, to woo, amuse or flatter. But perhaps the term can embrace a more shadowy side of life, the way Mahler or Bartók used it. Not so long ago, one British politician blighted the career of a colleague by saying that there was something of the night about him. This recording explores the night-music of Mozart’s soul.
On 10th August, 1787, in the catalogue he kept of his own works, Mozart wrote Eine kleine Nachtmusik beside a piece in G major for strings—not so much a title as a description: ‘a little piece of night music.’ It is not known why he wrote it, whether to fulfil a commission or for a private occasion, though it is safe to assume that it was performed. In those days few pieces were written without a particular function in mind. The manuscript shows signs of extreme haste, even for Mozart. For example, doublings are written in shorthand, and large sections of the piece, where the music repeats itself, are simply left out with written instructions about where to find the missing measures. It is this in particular which shows how quickly Mozart was working, since he often took the opportunity to alter small details the second time around. Although his haste is visible, it is not audible, and the work is widely accepted as one of the great masterpieces of the genre. By looking at the other works on this recording, an insight into why this is so can be found.
The Serenata Notturna (k. 239) is the earliest piece here, written in Salzburg early in 1776. Serenades were often grand affairs, sometimes one hour long and involving as large an orchestra as could be mustered. A few months later in his ‘Haffner’ Serenade Mozart used flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns and trumpets, as well as a prominent solo violin. So why this Serenata uses the unlikely (and unique) combination of strings and timpani is a mystery, one which probably raised a smile as well as a quizzical eyebrow from Mozart’s employer, Archbishop Colloredo. Despite the restricted orchestration, and the fact that he was becoming increasingly frustrated as a middle-ranking musician in a provincial Austrian court, Mozart’s creativity runs riot. He draws a rich variety of colours from the small instrumentarium, one moment a full-blooded forte, the next a playful pizzicato. At the start, all the parts combine to deliver a pompous, public fanfare. Then the tutti give way while a string quartet of two violins, a viola and a violone (here a small three-string double-bass) play a more private concert. This rocking between public and private, high and low music runs through the whole piece, notably in the (public) Menuetto and (private) Trio. On paper the tutti / solo division is reminiscent of a baroque concerto grosso, but the music sounds closer to an operatic scene, such as the party in Don Giovanni. In the final Rondeau Mozart interrupts the flow with a cheeky pastiche of Handel’s pseudo-tragic style, and then immediately brings the music back to the here-and-now by breaking into a low folk tune (as yet unidentified but not unlike the ‘Strasbourg’ tune in the finale of the G-major violin concerto, written just a few months earlier).