performed by Joszef Kiss and the Kodály Quartet, or below by Alexei Ogrintchouk, oboe; Baiba Skride, violin; Veronika Hagen, viola; Sol Gabetta, cello
(cover image by Anita Austvika)
Mozart’s Oboe quartet dates from 1781, a few years later than the oboe concerto we haven’t yet discussed. The year prior to the work’s composition, Mozart had been invited to Munich, and during that time caught up with one Friedrich Ramm, an oboist in the orchestra in Munich, who may also have been one of the soloists for whom the Sinfonia Concertante, K. 297b (or else the original version of the modern work) was written (but a discussion of that work is for another time).
The work, as you may expect, was an opportunity for Ramm to show off, toot his own horn, you might say, but we’re still very solidly in the Classical era, so the kind of showing off and virtuosity isn’t the extravagant, dramatic type of Liszt or others. Also, there were improvements made to the instrument itself, and Mozart’s writing was able to show that off.
The work is scored for oboe with a string trio (one violin, viola, cello) accompaniment. It is in three movements, with a duration of only about 15 minutes or less:
The first movement is made up, unsurprisingly, of two themes, the first of which is led by the oboe, the second of which, it seems, by the violin, but the whole time, the oboe is in the front seat, making this like a compact little concerto more than just, say, a string quartet with the violin swapped out for an oboe. Much more than that, really.
The two themes for this longest movement seem rather lengthy, and the entire exposition is repeated, leaving only a little bit of time for a development section that features a falling fourth as a motif, beginning a sort of canon where one instrument steps into place after the other. Also here, oboe isn’t the first to make this gesture, but enters after it’s been established, as if it’s still trying to perform its acrobatics despite the suddenly calmer mood. It’s a delightful first movement, which ends quietly and subtly, setting up for the adagio second movement.
Things are suddenly pretty somber for this shortest movement, and a beautiful sense of melancholy sets in and makes room for the oboist to present an aria in a quiet corner of this already rather small work. It is as if everything stops to give the soloist (or composer?) a chance to express their true feelings before time begins again and we reach the ebullient, exciting finale.
This is really where things take off, both energetically and virtuosically. It’s in a playful 6/8 time (although there’s a passage where the oboe plays against the ensemble in common time; see if you can pick it out), with playful themes, some dramatic, showy passages from the oboe, and just all around good fun.
This work is compact, straightforward, and all around more convincing than, say, the flute quartet we discussed recently, which really does feel like a string quartet with a woodwind stand-in. The oboe quartet may not be of the same magnificent depth and supreme quality of the very late clarinet quintet, but it’s much closer to that than the flute quartet in the sense that it is convincing as a form, showing real purpose to why the oboe should be there, letting the listener, and clearly the performer, enjoy a role that was made just for them, and that joy is evident in a performance of the piece like the above.
We’ll get back to some of Mozart’s piano sonatas and other more common things next week (actually this week since this post is a few days late), so stay tuned for that, and thanks so much for reading.