Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart          Five Contradances, K. 609/610 (1791)

Mozart’s 36th, last, year was richly productive, as it saw the birth of the opera “The Magic Flute,” the “Ave Verum Corpus” chorus and the “Requiem.” Interspersed among these and other major masterpieces lie these miniature ones, composed during carnival season to fulfill the requirements of Mozart’s one permanent (if ridiculously overqualified) appointment as Imperial composer, charged with providing dance music for the entertainment of the general population of Vienna before the onset of Lent. – The title is a prevalent German mistranslation of English “Country Dances.” (And the obligatory “K.” refers to the man who first catalogued Mozart’s works in chronological order.)

Jacques Ibert                                  Capriccio (1937)

The French, of course, are the masters of designer clothing and of puff pastry. Ibert’s “Capriccio” is as French as you can get – elegant in its shape and in the cut of its tunes, with harmonies that melt in the mouth. The aggressively energetic opening moment turns out to be but a foil for the jazzy nonchalance of the main idea. A middle section delves deeper, kaleidoscopic chords in the harp serving as underlay to tenderly aching melodies. The return of the ‘cool’ section is interrupted by a breakdown of formal order – the capriciousness implied by the title – as harp, cello and violin in turn have solo ‘riffs’, before a short reminder of where we were before the interruption rushes the piece out the door and onto the Champs Élysées.

Richard Wagner                             Siegfried Idyll (1870)

With typical megalomania, Richard Wagner named his firstborn son after the hero of his epic cycle of mythologic operas, The Ring of the Nibelungen. Although the “Idyll” repeatedly quotes the third of those four operas, Siegfried, it is at a polar remove from its grandiosity, being an intimate serenade to be played as a surprise Christmas present for the composer’s wife, Cosima, by 13 players crammed into the foyer of their country villa on the shores of Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne. (I’ve been there several times, and can only figure some of the players stood in the staircase.)

Paul Hindemith                              Kammermusik Nr. 1, Op. 24 (1921)

This is a work with attitude to spare! Its composer was a 26 -year-old of prodigious technical facility, devoid of any respect for the aesthetics of his recent predecessors, in particular those who had transformed Wagner’s ardent genius into laborious sentimentality. There was no room for sentiment in the vision of this soldier who had served in the First World War amid all its horrors, and was living in the free-for-all free- fall of postwar Germany. The finale of this “Chamber Concerto” is actually titled “1921,” and is built around a pop tune of the day (clearly stated by the trumpet at its first entrance). The three prior movements are, in order, a first to be played “Wild and Fast”; a more stately second movement that parodies the Baroque gestures of Handel; and a third, slow, movement for the wind instruments and a chime alone, that exemplifies beauty freed from emotion. There is an irony in that this composition, for all its nose-thumbing piling dissonant keys on top of each other, is traditional in the sophistication of its architecture.

Notes by Michel Singher