Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622

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            During his relatively brief life Mozart composed at an amazing rate, and so today we are blessed with a multiplicity of his works in almost all musical genres.  His operas, of course, are his most important contributions, but they are followed close in significance by his concertos.   Collectively, they defined the form and set the mark for all composers who followed.  Mozart wrote over twenty concertos for piano, about a dozen for various stringed instruments, and roughly the same number for wind soloists.   The clarinet concerto was his last, written in the final year of his life along with the immortal Magic Flute and the Requiem Mass.   Composed for Anton Stadler, a well-known virtuoso in Vienna, the concerto received its first performance there in October of 1791, just a couple of months before Mozart’s death. 

            The work, while certainly not without its difficulties, is notable for the consistent lyricism—indeed, at times poignance—that is pervasive throughout.  It certainly does not anticipate the shallow brilliance and virtuosity that often came to characterize many of the concertos of the following romantic period.   This masterpiece is Mozart in his maturity, written at the height of his powers.   It is infused throughout with a delicate balance between the dramatic needs of contrasting a soloist with an orchestra on the one hand, and the almost chamber-like intimacies of the solo passages on the other.   This is especially true of the incredibly lyrical slow movement—which many will recognize from its dramatic use some years ago in the film, Out of Africa.

            It is written in the conventional three movements of a concerto, but there is nothing conventional about the nuanced and imaginative way that Mozart coordinates the solo clarinet with the orchestra, as well as exploiting the virtues of the instrument.  Things to listen for in all three movements include the marvelous changes in register, from low to high, that engender so much tonal contrast, as well as the clever dialogues between soloist and orchestra.   The latter characteristic is especially true in the last movement.  Here, in a fashion that is not found to this degree even in the piano concertos, the two instrumental forces wittily exchange comments in a kind of gay banter.

            The historical evidence is clear that Mozart loved rich, dark musical textures, and we know that he loved the clarinet.   He exploited that instrument’s expressive possibilities to the utmost in this work, so beloved by clarinetists everywhere—and left us with some of his last musical thoughts before his tragic death.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© William E. Runyan