Mozart Divertimento no. 4 in B flat, K. 186

performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Wind Ensemble, or below by the Ensemble Zefiro in a wildly different tempo in places

(cover image by Jess Watters)

This piece is for an ensemble of only ten instruments, all winds, and so is just barely not a chamber piece, really. I mean… it still is.

The work was written alongside a companion wind decet (ten instruments), K. 166, which we’ll get around to in a few weeks. Confusingly, although we know almost nothing about these pieces, as we’ll discuss in the next paragraph, we somehow do know that the fourth, given catalogue number 186, was the first of the two, with 166 coming after it, albeit like… months or even just weeks after it.

There’s actually a cool bit of detective work that some scholars have done to determine a bit more about whence these works come, which unfortunately, like most cool stories, appears to be incorrect. Wikipedia discusses this briefly, but it centers around the idea that Mozart didn’t have access to clarinets in Salzburg, so it must have been written in Italy. Apparently there would have been clarinets there, which calls that Milanese theory into question. We do not know whether they were commissions, and if so, from whom, but somehow we do know that this is the first of the two.

Both of these works are written for pairs of oboes, English horns, clarinets, bassoons and horns. The two pieces have similar five-movement structures as well. This work’s five movements are as follows:

  1. Allegro assai
  2. Menuetto with Trio
  3. Andante
  4. Adagio
  5. Allegro

Of this work and the clarinet conundrum, Wikipedia says:

… in K 186/159b, the first of the two works, the clarinets are treated very often in the same way as the horns, providing pedal points and filling out the harmony without being given the opportunity for solo work, while the majority of the musical and lyrical statements are made by the oboes and English horns; in K 166/159d, on the other hand, the clarinets have become far more independent and are often given the upper voices, sometimes acting as a true pair of soloists accompanied only by the bass.

The work is only about 11 minutes in length, at least in the Vienna recording. Ensemble Zefiro treats that opening movement at such a (relatively) breakneck speed that it sounds like an entirely different piece.

The first movement, Wiki says, “is a Ländler that functions as an Intrada to the rest of the work.” It is, after all, the shortest movement, but only barely. This little almost circus-like movement begins with a four-note downward figure that seems childlike, even primitive, but is playful, or aspires to be, and would be more so if Vienna’s reading weren’t so slow. I understand it’s a Ländler; I think Zefiro approaches it far too briskly. Anyway, there’s obviously very little that happens here. The composer somehow manages to make a movement that lasts less than 120 seconds repetitive.

We have a minuet that follows the Ländler, so it’s pretty lilty music, but the exceeding simplicity of the music strikes me here as being more charming than it was in the opening; we get a distinctly double-reed trio before the minuet is repeated, as per usual.

The andante is the most charming thing so far, or seems like it will be until everyone is playing in unison again. The oboes and English horns sing the melody over a low note in the horns, and your mind may even drift off to a pastoral scene from a robust German symphony that takes you on some walk around mother nature, but no. We go really literally almost nowhere, but there’s something more approaching an ensemble sound here than anywhere else, at least thus far.

The adagio gives us more oboe over a pedal point (?) from the horn. This is (again, at least from Vienna) the longest movement. There’s more color here, less blocky movement in the entire ensemble doing the same thing at the same time, and because everything moves more slowly, we can appreciate it a little more, even if a few of the held notes start to sound like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.

Now the finale is where we actually have something that can get a person excited. It’s lively and playful and seems to have the instruments in their proper places, performing their own functions to make this little allegro something enjoyable and interesting. There’s a little more independence and depth, but really… we’re still talking about a very early, very straightforward piece.

And we’re done with that for now. We still have more Mozart for the weekend and then a small break from Wolfie for a few weeks, but he’ll be back very soon for lots more (and more exciting) music, so please stay tuned for that and thanks so much for reading!

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