Mozart Horn Concerto no. 2 in E flat, K. 417

performed by David Pyatt and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under Neville Marriner, or below with the fantastic Radek Baborák and the Mito Chamber Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa

W. A. Mozart took pity on Leitgeb, ass, ox and fool in Vienna on 27 May 1783

Manuscript Inscription for the concerto

Mozart’s second horn concerto actually came before the first, because history. The first horn concerto, K. 412 is in only two movements, and the second of those movements was completed, not by Mozart, but by one of his students, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, so we’re skipping it for now. It was the last to be completed.

The second, like all Mozart’s horn works, was written for Joseph Leitgeb (or Leutgeb, if you prefer), that shadowy famous horn player, often misidentified as a cheesemonger, with all sorts of non-facts stated about him. To clear up some of this misinformation, if you’re interested, check out Michael Lorenz’s wonderful article A Little Leitgeb Research. At the very least, we know he was a family friend, and quite a bit older than Mozart, having already established a career for himself while Mozart was still in single digits.

The work was completed in 1783, and, as Wikipedia says, is one of two horn concertos of Mozart to omit bassoons, as well as to include horns in the orchestra. You’d never think to omit violins in a violin concerto since they make up such an important part of the orchestra, but with an instrument like the clarinet, horn, flute, etc., it can be easy for the one or two orchestral instruments to poach a bit on the soloist’s sound. Wikipedia calls these included horns “ripieno horns,” in case you need to impress anyone.

As the above-quoted inscription indicates, Mozart was not too mature to give his dedicatee a good ribbing, and the solo part (manuscript only?) for concerto no. 1 in D, finished last, when Leitgeb was somewhat older, includes all sorts of comments about how terrible the soloist sounds, instructions to catch his breath, how he sounds like an animal, or how out of tune he is. Despite the persecution from his composer friend, they must have gotten along somehow, because all the works Mozart wrote for the instrument as soloist were written for Leitgeb, and today’s concerto truly is a beauty, and also the first concerto of the set from Mozart to be penned, despite its number.

You might not have thought that the horn could blend as well into a chamber setting as it does, but the quintet from over the weekend (as well as my recent live listening of Beethoven’s op. 16) shows that it is an instrument of delicacy and expressiveness. We’re obviously going to be focusing mostly on horn concertos, but there are some chamber works lined up as well, so we’ll get a good idea of what this instrument is capable of, and I figure Mozart will set a good impression, if not a slightly high bar, for what comes later.

This work, like the others, is short, at only about 13-14 minutes, and fits the typical three-movement model (the first being the outlier, in only two movements). The lyricism and rhythmic freshness, crispness of this work, overall, really regardless of the soloist, is absolutely intoxicating. It’s the kind of work that won’t go away, where you’re off doing other things and, almost without realizing it, begin humming something and low and behold, it’s this thing that you thought you’d forgotten.

The first movement has a short little exposition, and we can almost guess the very moment the soloist enters, so exquisite are Mozart’s phrasing and presentation, but when the horn does enter, it’s with a different theme, nothing that’s been presented in the exposition. That’s fine, though, because it’s one of those standout melodies I was talking about. We also get a minor key passage toward the middle of the movement adding just the right amount of contrast to what would otherwise be maybe a bit too sunny. Balance, contrast, beauty. It is Mozart.

The middle andante clearly has its strengths in its songlike beauty from the soloist, but it’s not just an aria-type shining solo moment. There’s an expert use of the integration of the accompaniment alongside the soloist, how the orchestra never disappears, but never takes an ounce too much of the spotlight. With Pyatt’s recording under Marriner, this is the shortest movement of the work, but their almost whispered delicacy leaves us both at ease and wanting something with some punch, which the finale delightfully delivers.

It’s operatic, bouncy, jolly, but expressive and virtuosic, with poise and a hunting-song-like chase, especially toward the end. This has to be one of the most contagious, sticky, enduring melodies I’ve heard from Mozart. I am always stuck humming this for days, and everything about this, from the orchestra’s echo of the solo part, their responses to him, or the galloping sounds that swell up from nowhere like horses flying by, are quaintly, quickly, perfectly exhilarating, and how suitable for the horn. Just delightful.

It may be unfortunate for the entire rest of the series that we begin with something so brilliant, but what order would we present these in if it weren’t chronological? In any case, I do want to give an early apology to Haydn for not including (or even listening to) any of his concertos for the instrument in this series, but I’m a little stuck on Mozart at the moment. After this week, we’ll move away from him for a while and get on to some composers who you may not have heard of or given much attention to, and I’m always excited about that. Stay tuned, and thanks for listening.

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