Mozart Violin Concerto no. 4 in D, K. 218

performed by Arabella Steinbacher and the Festival Strings Lucerne, or below by Pinchas Zukerman and the English Chamber Orchestra

(cover image by Karsten Würth)

We’re hopping back in time a little bit, to the year 1775, in Mozart’s Salzburg era. Remember, now, all five of the composer’s concertos for violin were composed within a relatively period of a few years, the first dating from as early as 1773, and the fifth and final (as we shall see later this week) in 1775, only some months after this work.

There is some discussion with these concertos, for some reason, regarding Mozart’s ability to play them. Both Wikipedia and Blair Johnston mention this issue of whether they were beyond the composer’s own skill level. It seems that, as you may expect from Mozart, the concertos were initially composed for the still-teenaged Mozart to play himself, but that the works underwent some revision when he left the Salzburg Court Orchestra the following year. In his place came Antonio Brunetti, who a short time later would become concertmaster. It seems they were friends, as Mozart wrote music for him, but he seems to have become rather nasty in his later letters, one from 1781 referring to him as “that coarse and dirty Brunetti who is a disgrace to his master, to himself and to the whole orchestra.”

I digress. When Mozart left and Brunetti took his place, the concertos were revised and apparently made at least a little more difficult, hence the question regarding Mozart’s skill. Were they revised because Brunetti’s talent was that much beyond Mozart’s own? It would be fun to claim that they were made more challenging to spite Brunetti, but it seems their relationship hadn’t soured by this point, and Mozart could have been far nastier to his one-time friend were he really interested in being dirty, for the work is still beautiful, and as Johnston says, ” when asked to bring a Mozart concerto to the audition room, this is the one that is selected most often by aspiring violinists.”

The work is in the typical slow-fast-slow three-movement form.

  1. Allegro
  2. Andante cantabile (A major)
  3. Rondeau (Andante grazioso – Allegro ma non troppo)

The opening allegro seems at first to be heavy and even a little bit aggressive in its chugging first bar, but immediately softens to become a crisp refreshing introduction rather than a military march. We could go on to talk about how this movement unfolds, but do we really need to? The violin enters high above the ensemble to present and elaborate on what is already familiar material, and the resulting development is, as Dr. Richard Rodda says, “less a true development of earlier motives than a free fantasia of pearly scales and flashing arpeggios,” but who can be bothered about a slight departure from form when the music is this pleasant? There is a wonderful cadenza before the brief coda, and we move on to the second movement.

After the first and longest movement concludes, we have the centra andante cantabile, which Johnston says “has not the fame of either the slow movement of the Concerto No. 3 in G or that of the Concerto No. 5 in A, but there is no shame in being a lesser-known gem.” He doesn’t give it any more consideration than that, but if we’re talking of Mozart’s music, as it is so appropriate to do, to me, in terms of the crisp, fragrant, refreshing nature and clarity of a beautiful white wine, then the more energetic outer movements of his works are probably more like a Sauvignon Blanc or even a champagne, but this middle movement maintains its clarity while still being possessive, in the soloist’s aria-like role, of a buttery warmth, like a rich chardonnay, certainly present in the virtuosic, even a little flashy, cadenza at the end of the movement. This sounds like a mature composer.

The finale is, as we would expect, a rondo, or actually, a rondeau. This difference in spelling actually has meaning. A French rondo is something a little different, apparently, as Johnston mentions:

…all rondos are defined by alternation of a refrain theme with somewhat different material, but in a French Rondo the music stops altogether and suddenly, and sometimes very humorously, shoots off in an entirely new direction for a while.

So can some of these pedantic-sounding musical things be the source of humor, or even fun? Absolutely. As with any rondo/rondeau, we can try to identify the beginning and end points of the sections, and while this finale has its more eventful moments, with some of those sudden, humorous new directions, I feel the overall sentiment is one of warmth and joy, a little quiet, understated for long passages. The close of the finale, for example, reaches a head with a small solo passage, the return of the orchestra for a final statement, but closes quietly.

There’s a maturity and polish here that, although it’s still quite early in his output, earlier than some of the other pieces we’ve been discussing, but it feels… for lack of a better term, like it’s really part of the repertoire, a ‘serious’ piece, rather than just the composer trying his hand at something as an early effort.

All that being said, there’s yet another, slightly later concerto, as we mentioned, and I’m glad there’s a difference between these (slightly) later concertos because it feels not as if it’s “just another work” like the early string quartets or symphonies, but that these two latest concertos, and really the third as well, each accomplish something different, much as the late symphonies or concertos do, and that’s exciting and memorable. Stay tuned for that, and thanks so much for reading.

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