Mozart – Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola K364

Allegro maestoso – Andante – Presto

This is my favourite piece of Mozart. I first played it as a 16-year-old and marvelled at how the composer, unlike many others, allows each instrument in the orchestra to maintain a significant tune in its own right and at the same time contribute to the harmonious whole. It is a piece of chamber music in this respect, like a string quartet, but it is symphonic in stature with two sets of viola parts adding to the usual string lines as well as oboes and horns. On top of this accompaniment is the beautiful dialogue between the solo violin and viola. The latter part is written in D rather than E flat, suggesting Mozart wanted the instrument to be tuned a semitone higher to make the strings tauter and so sound brighter than the violas in the orchestra and seem more of an equal to the violin solo.

The brilliant conception of the piece, showcasing the orchestra as well as the soloists, perhaps reflects the particular moment at which Mozart composed it. He had returned to his home city of Salzburg in Austria from a lengthy trip to Paris, spending some time in Mannheim in both directions too. He was now 23 and more desperate than ever to progress his career beyond the employment of the Archbishop of Salzburg. Such a showcase piece, brimming with novel ideas, could have been written to display his talents on the limited orchestral forces available to him in Salzburg.

The lengthy introduction of the first movement also reflects the Mannheim style. The court orchestra there was highly renowned at that time and attracted many fine composers, who wrote distinctive extended crescendos, as heard in this exhilarating opening passage. But when the soloists finally enter they do so far above the melee with a calm E-flat in unison. The contrast is superb and sets up the start of an entertaining strong of party pieces ending with a delightful cadenza.

“In the E-flat major Sinfonia Concertante Mozart summed up what he had accomplished in the concertante portions of his serenades, adding what he had learned of the monumental style in Mannheim and Paris, and most important of all, treating all his materials with the personal and artistic maturity which he had by this time reached,” wrote his biographer Alfred Einstein.

Mannheim may have inspired the first movement but perhaps his unhappy time in Paris is reflected in the more sombre second movement. Not only did Mozart not enjoy the court music in Paris as much but he also endured the pain of seeing his mother, who was accompanying him on his trip, fall ill and sadly die while they were in the city. The two soloists seem to be grieving a much loved mutual friend throughout this movement in which a mature Mozart is truly revealed.

In the last movement the joy returns with abundance and at pace, with the two instruments now chasing each other and almost bouncing off each other with pleasure. Its “gaiety results principally from the fact that in the chain of musical events the unexpected always occurs first, being followed by the expected,” said Einstein. Again a series of bright ascending crescendos bring the piece to a triumphant and most satisfying conclusion.

Within a year of composing this happiest of movements Mozart did indeed leave Salzburg to try his luck, first in Munich with the opera Idomeneo and then in the imperial capital of Vienna.

Chris Spink, Violin 1