The Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622 has been called Mozart’s swan song. His last completed work, it was first performed on October 16, 1791 in Prague, less than two months before the composer’s death at the age of 35.
At the time, the clarinet was a young instrument still in development, and a newcomer to the orchestra. When the 22-year-old Mozart visited Mannheim, a progressive musical center far ahead of provincial Salzburg, Mozart wrote home to his father, “If only we had clarinets! You cannot imagine the glorious effect of a symphony with flutes, oboes, and clarinets.”
It was Mozart’s close friend and fellow Freemason, Anton Stadler, who was the primary inspiration for the Clarinet Concerto. Mozart wrote to Stadler,
Never would I have thought that a clarinet could be capable of imitating the human voice as deceptively as it is imitated by you. Truly your instrument has so soft and lovely a tone that nobody with a heart could resist it.
Modern commentators continue to note the instrument’s vocal quality. Robert Gibson writes,
The clarinet has a chest voice, a head voice and a break in-between. It is powered by air passing from the lungs through the lips. It sings not with words but with pure open sounds. And the smooth carriage from one sound to another – as smooth as a singer gliding from one note to the next – is one of the instrument’s specialties.
It was not the modern clarinet, but rather the basset clarinet for which Mozart originally wrote this music. Co-invented by Stadler, the basset clarinet featured a lower range, with pitches descending to low C. Mozart’s original manuscript was lost, and by the time the music was published in 1801, the basset clarinet had fallen out of favor. Publishers adapted the score to the modern instrument, however it was not until the twentieth century when performers attempted to recreate the original score. It is the darker, reedier basset clarinet that we hear in the recording below, featuring Wolfgang Meyer with conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus Wien.
Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto is intimately scored chamber music. The customary cadenza is omitted, and the solo clarinet and orchestra engage in a rich musical conversation. The first movement (Allegro) is filled with jubilant leaps in range, interjections, and moments in which the voices imitate one another through brief canons. The second movement (Adagio) is a sublime operatic aria. In this serene and intimate prayer, sadness meets quiet gratitude. Set in a sparkling 6/8 time, the concluding Rondo (Allegro) delivers a frolicking sense of adventure. A lingering wistfulness remains. Fun and fleeting, this infectious music is ultimately a farewell.
- Mozart: Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622, Wolfgang Meyer, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Concentus Musicus Wien Amazon
- Sabine Meyer with Hans Vonk and the Staatskapelle Dresden
- Jörg Widmann with Hugh Wolff and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony