Almost Mozart

Oct. 24, 2021
Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts

Warren Cohen, Conductor

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) 
Symphony no. 37 in G major KV444                          
(adapted from Symphony no. 25
by Michael Haydn, 1737-1806)   

I. Adagio maestoso – Allegro con spirito
II. Andante sostenuto
III. Allegro molto                                                                                                  

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Piano Concerto no. 1 in G minor

Sharon Hui, piano

I. Molto allegro con fuoco
II. Andante
III. Presto – Molto allegro vivace


Max Reger (1873-1916)
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart, Op. 132    

Theme. Andante grazioso
Variation 1. L’istesso tempo
Variation 2. Poco agitato
Variation 3. Con moto
Variation 4. Vivace
Variation 5. Quasi presto
Variation 6. Sostenuto
Variation 7. Andante grazioso
Variation 8. Molto sostenuto
Fugue. Allegretto grazioso

Program notes by MNO Music Director Warren Cohen

“Mozart,” Symphony no. 37 in G major KV444
(adapted from Symphony no. 25 by Michael Haydn)

This work represents a case of mistaken identity. The original Breitkopf edition of Mozart symphonies listed this piece as No. 37. This was generally accepted until 1907, when Lothar Perger was developing a numerical catalog of the music of Michael Haydn. He noticed that his subject’s Symphony No. 25 was virtually identical to Mozart’s Symphony No. 37.

With a little more research he was able to figure out that Mozart had pinched his colleague’s work for a concert he needed to fill out, adding a slow introduction to the first movement and making a few changes, the most significant being the removal of a bassoon solo in the slow movement. Otherwise, he let the work stand unaltered.

It is perhaps understandable that the mistake was made. The concert at which Mozart introduced this symphony also featured the premiere of Symphony No. 36. Music historians paid little attention to the concert earlier in 1783 where Michael Haydn premiered his symphony, and the work in its original form was probably never played from the beginning of the 19th century until well into the 20th century. If it was known at all, it was in Mozart’s version.

Mozart and Michael Haydn knew each other well. Haydn had been concertmaster of the Salzburg Orchestra and organist at the cathedral where Mozart worked for several miserable years. Haydn’s professional connection with the town of Mozart’s birth was deeper and longer (and far more affectionate!) than Mozart’s.

Mozart knew Michael before he met his more famous brother Joseph, likely around 1783. Although Mozart’s relationship with Joseph evolved into one of his closest friendships, Mozart also held Michael Haydn in great esteem, sometimes comparing his music to that of Joseph. The mere fact that Mozart was willing to attach his own introduction to a symphony of Michael Haydn and feature it on a concert devoted to his music demonstrated how seriously he took Haydn’s music.

The work is in three movements:

  • Mozart’s static and ceremonial introduction is slightly at odds with the sprightly music that follows, which is expertly composed and clever. It is hard to see how anyone would think it was the work of Mozart; it occasionally suggests the music of Joseph Haydn, but even that comparison is a stretch.
  • The slow movement includes striking and engaging wind solos (including the bassoon solo that Mozart cut).
  • The finale is a tour de force of energy of a very distinctive type.

    Although it might not be Mozart, it is worthy and strong music of a terrific composer.

Mendelssohn: Piano Concerto no. 1 in G minor

Although listed as “Piano Concerto No. 1” this was the fourth piano concerto Mendelssohn wrote, after two concertos for two pianos and a Concerto in A minor for piano and strings. This is the first concerto he wrote for piano and a standard orchestra.

It was written in the summer of 1831, a period in which he was traveling a great deal and working on his third and fourth symphonies. Near the end of the summer, after a leisurely trip through Italy and Switzerland, he was engaged to conduct a concert of his music in Munich. At some point he decided the planned program was too short and dashed out this concerto in a matter of days. “It was written almost carelessly,” he said later.

Mendelssohn played the piece at the concert. A big hit, it was soon taken up by other pianists, most notably Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann, the two most famous pianists of the day. Mendelssohn was surprised by its popularity, but it is easy to see. Music that attracts audiences generally has a well-balanced mix of familiar and novel elements. In this case, the familiar — great tunes, glittering virtuosity and clever dialogue between piano and orchestra — is balanced by several striking novelties.

The first comes at the beginning. Instead of a lengthy orchestral introduction, the piano enters after a few chords with a vigorous figure and continues to be the protagonist throughout the concerto. At the time only a few concertos introduced the piano right at the beginning, such as Beethoven’s last two concertos, but those then followed with the typical orchestra exposition of material. There is no earlier concerto I know of that begins like Mendelssohn’s.

Another novelty: Mendelssohn connects all three movements, playing them without pause. This gives an unexpected effect of energy and continuity.

The music is concisely and beautifully constructed. It suggests that the speed with which Mendelssohn composed the work may have contributed to its effectiveness. Having come up with the ideas, and with only a few days to write them down, there was no time to overthink his inspirations. The freshness of its invention is evident.

Reger: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart

The palindromic composer Max Reger is known to the general public either through an oft-repeated anecdote or through his reputation as a pedantic and dull writer of difficult, highly chromatic contrapuntal music.

It is true that Reger, in the formal organization of his music, preferred to use traditional structures such as the variation form, and that his music is written in the highly chromatic idiom of late Romantic composers who were pushing the boundaries of tonality. However, what is most striking about his music is its sensuality and beauty. He was a fine melodist, and his harmonic language is both distinctive and deeply expressive. His respect and love for composers of earlier times is evident in the series of works he wrote based on melodies by Telemann, Bach, and Mozart.

His Mozart Variations are based on one of Mozart’s most famous tunes, the gorgeous A major opening to the Piano Sonata K.331. It was daring to use this theme for a series of variations, for Mozart already did so in the sonata!

Reger presents the entire theme in varied orchestral garb before beginning a sequence of eight variations. They are striking: Although the harmonic language is far from that of Mozart, at every point you can clearly hear the relationship to the original tune. It could be argued that Reger’s variations, although they go way further afield harmonically, remain truer melodically to the original tune than Mozart’s own variations. They are also gorgeously and lushly scored. It is hard to square Reger’s reputation for pedantry with the sensuous music you hear in this beautiful work.

After the variations, the extended fugue begins quietly with a highly chromatic theme, still squarely and easily related to the original tune. As the contrapuntal complexity increases with the entering voices, the initial feeling of an almost humorous take on the tune begins to change. By the time the original Mozart melody is triumphantly reiterated in the brass, one can hear Reger’s intention: a glorious evocation of the connection between the music of Mozart’s time and his own, an ode to the affirmation of the 19th century aesthetic of progress, and a wonderful expression of the spirit of grandeur lurking beneath the surface of Mozart’s innocent sounding tune.

And that anecdote? Reger’s Sinfonietta had just been harshly panned by the music critic Rudolf Louis. Reger chose to reply. “Dear Herr Louis,” he wrote. “I am in the smallest room in the house. Your review is in front of me. Soon it will be behind me.”