File this under “better late than never” if you must, but as I write it’s still Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s birthday. Just as we give thanks on many days throughout the year, not just one Thursday in November, so we also revel in the myriad musical miracles of “Wolfie” all year round. Still, I thought I would celebrate the 260th anniversary of that auspicious birth in an utterly futile, if irresistibly entertaining, manner: My personal “Top 10” list of favorite Mozart compositions.
The list is not exact in the middle numbers, but I would say that the top four have been secure for quite some time…here we go.
#10. Rondo in A Minor, K. 511. I first heard this breathtaking gem on the radio, after it started, and (this was late high school or early college) racked my brain trying to recall what Chopin work lay undiscovered to my ears. Ok, snicker at will, but rush to hear it if it’s new to you.
#9. Symphony No. 39. As a first-year graduate student at the New England Conservatory I took a class in Advanced Orchestral Conducting with Richard Pittman. I had visions of attacking one great work after another every couple of weeks or so…imagine my surprise when I learned we would spend the entire first semester on but one work. Now double the surprise when we were told the piece was Mozart’s antepenultimate symphony (yes, I’ve been dying to use that word for quite some time), K. 543. What??!! No Symphony No. 40 or “Jupiter” for crying out loud. And if that weren’t enough, the bulk of our time was spent on just the first movement. Boy did I have a lot to learn…like what happens when you really get to know a great work from the inside out, line by line, not to mention the fact that there were so many musical roads less traveled by a certain 23-year old clarinetist…
#8. Concerto for Clarinet, K. 622. You don’t have to be a clarinetist to have this work on your list—but you do have to be a consummate one to make this work sound as easy as it looks. In the admittedly limited realm of clarinet concertos, no one matched this first great example of what the instrument could do.
#7. Cosi fan tutte. When I decided around the beginning of my junior year in high school that I was definitely going to major in music one way or another, I decided I had a lot of listening to do. My own operatic baptism as a listener had come a few years earlier via Carmen and then Die Walkure. Even falling under the Wagnerian spell I knew I’d better know my Mozart operas, and so I fetched those oh-so-convenient sets of LPs from the local library. Never having seen them, it was Cosi that first enchanted me, and within a few years I decided it was because that of the first ten numbers in the work, nine were ensembles, duets or larger. And each one just seemed more beautiful than the one before…
#6. Le Nozze di Figaro. Yes, it took a little while for me to warm as strongly to Figaro, but it has long been in that list of favorite operas that I still can’t imagine ever growing tired of seeing. And another “thank you” to University Opera for their engaging and thoughtful production last fall.
#5. Piano Quartet in G Minor, K. 478. This was a work I discovered early in my first year of college, off a suggested listening list. Next trip home I made sure to buy it, and the version remains a favorite: Mieczyslaw Horszowski with members of the Budapest String Quartet. The “B” side—same instrumentation for K. 493 in E-flat Major—wasn’t too shabby, either!
#4. Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor. I’ve made one restriction for this list, which is to choose only one of Mozart’s sublime piano concertos. My feeling for Nos. 21 and 23 are nearly as strong, but if this was a “desert island” list, it would have to include this dark (and later, light) masterpiece.
#3. Don Giovanni. The seriousness of the work just didn’t come through on recordings when I first heard it, and for that matter, neither did the various shades of humor. But by the time I worked at Los Angeles Opera (1994-95) I was thoroughly excited to see the work from rehearsal stage to finished performance. An added and unforgettable bonus was that I was usually the driver for the star, Thomas Allen. His nuanced portrayal of history’s most famous rake was exceeded only by his personal warmth and graciousness.
#2. Requiem. Even the end of the film Amadeus failed to ruin this work for me; other composers created requiems longer, louder and arguably more dramatic, but many repeated hearings of many different versions over the last forty years always seem newly alive, regardless of the conductor’s solution to the unfinished portions.
#1. Quintet for Clarinet and Strings. Ok, let the bias charges loose, but many a chamber music lover has a special affection for this timeless work. Brahms might have still discovered his own intoxicating brand of weaving the clarinet’s kaleidoscope of registers with a string quartet, but Mozart’s model can only be equaled, not surpassed.
With apologies to all who heartily disagree…happy listening, and Happy Birthday, Mozart!