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Onyx recordings

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Serenade No. 10 for 13 instruments in B flat major, K361 'Gran Partita' (c.1781-84) [48:51]
Serenade No. 12 for winds in C minor, K388 (c. 1782-83) [23:36]
London Winds/Michael Collins (clarinet)
rec. 13-14 April 2006, Walthen Hall, Barnes, London. DDD
ONYX 4012 [72:31]

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This release of two Mozart wind serenades is from the bold independent designer label Onyx launched in 2005 with recordings from renowned performers: Viktoria Mullova; Borodin String Quartet; Pascal Rogé and Barbara Bonney. Fortunate to have been the recipient of several Onyx review copies I have been most impressed with their consistently high standard of performance and sound.

Mozart composed a considerable amount of music for wind band, or Harmoniemusik, that was intended for informal outdoor entertainment on social occasions, almost as background music, and not for serious performance in the concert hall, church or recital room. This 'entertainment music' in Mozart’s output took several forms, orchestral, small chamber group and wind ensembles.

Even if the objective of the work was for casual purposes Mozart took the modesty inherent in 'entertainment music' very seriously. I believe that some of his greatest inspiration can be found in these scores, such as in his music for wind ensemble 'Harmoniemusik'. This Onyx release comprises two such works one of which, K361, I believe to be a true masterwork.

The outstanding seven movement 'Gran Partita' was Mozart’s largest and richest composition for wind ensemble. Often it is referred to as the Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments, which is not strictly correct, as it is scored for 13 instruments but generally not all are wind. In the autograph score Mozart specifies 12 wind instruments: four horns, pairs of basset-horns, oboes, clarinets and bassoons with the addition of one double-bass. However, on this recording, "For purely musical reasons of improved blend and balance …" the London Winds have decided to employ a contrabassoon instead of a double-bass. Studies have been unable to place a precise date of composition although a period between 1781 and 1784 is likely. It seems that the score was intended for a specific outside event.

Here the 'Gran Partita' is given an impressive performance and the director Michael Collins also plays the clarinet. However, they are up against commanding competition. Compared to the versions from the English Chamber Orchestra under Barenboim on HMV and the Amadeus Winds under Hogwood on Decca I found this interpretation had insufficient control over the players’ exuberance in the brisk movements and in need of a touch more sensitivity in the slower passages. The opening movement Largo, Molto allegro with its distinctive dancing quality is performed excessively freely and in the fourth movement Menuetto, Allegretto that essential bite is tamely absent. In the fifth movement Romanze, Adagio the London Winds virtually equal that special degree of tenderness that the ECO provides. The exuberant closing Rondo is given a vivacious reading by the London Winds who then lose their composure in a wild sprint to the finishing line.

Little is known about the attractive Serenade No. 12 K388, thought to have been written around 1782-83. A wind octet for pairs of clarinets, horns, bassoons and oboes and cast in four movements, this score is unusually sombre for Mozart. The Onyx annotation refers to it as 'Nacht Musique' which is a term that Mozart used in a letter to his father in 1782 and is thought to apply to this score. This title of 'Nacht Musique' is not to be confused with Mozart’s famous Serenade for strings in G major which is more popularly known as 'Eine kleine Nachtmusik'.

Despite spirited playing the extended opening Allegro and the third movement Menuetto in canone are slightly less controlled in approach and the second movement Andante cannot emulate the poetry achieved by Hogwood and his Amadeus Winds on Decca. The closing Allegro was rather disappointing as the playing requires a higher level of ebullience as provided by the rival account from the Amadeus players.

My unequivocal reference account in K388 is the stunning performance on period instruments by the Amadeus Winds under Christopher Hogwood, from 1985 in New York, on Double Decca 458 096-2.

This Onyx recording frequently adds a sharp, over-bright edge to the timbre that overall makes the sound quality acceptable rather than pleasing. The uncredited annotation serves the purpose well but left me wanting more information. These are fine recordings. However, the excellence of the strongest rival versions make this set difficult to recommend.

There may be readers who, in Mozart’s 250th anniversary year, have only just discovered the delights of the 'Gran Partita', a masterwork in a genre that can easily be overshadowed by his operatic, orchestral, concertante and instrumental works. If you fall into this category or are new to Mozart and are looking for something outside his mainstream repertoire I can enthusiastically suggest the six movement Divertimento (String Trio) in E flat, K563 (1788). Also worthy of exploration are the pair of Duos for Violin and Viola, K423 and K424 both composed in 1873. All three Mozart scores have been described by Robin Golding as, "…unqualified masterpieces…" and I have been very happy with my 1967/68 Netherlands accounts from the eminent Grumiaux Trio on a Philips Duo 454 0232 and also on Volume 13 of the Complete Mozart Edition a double set on Philips 422 513-2.

Michael Cookson

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