April showers bring May flowers and one of the brightest musical blossoms gracing this month’s first days is The Handel and Haydn Society’s performance of Mozart party pieces. How far we have come in our understanding of the serenade genre can be easily demonstrated by seeking out performances of the Serenata notturna led by Karl Böhm and Herbert von Karajan: highly polished, galant big orchestra curios which betray no knowledge of the serenade’s occasional nature and even ignore indications in the score which point toward a more lighthearted and mischievous approach. Eine kleine Nachtmusik has been similarly well mannered and subdued, a dose of musical Ambien to sooth and lull the listener. Led by concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky, the compact group of H&H musicians restored these two pieces to their whimsical “party hearty” roots.

Aisslinn Nosky
© H+H Society

Salzburg serenades were usually performed in the background at large, festive gatherings. The specific celebration 1776’s Serenata notturna adorned remains unknown but the irreverent character of the music suggests it was written for a more intimate gathering to celebrate someone the young Mozart felt comfortable ribbing and who would have appreciated the madcap invention and in-jokes of the third movement. The unique scoring for strings and timpani sets the serenade further apart from others Mozart composed, while the division of the players into two distinct ensembles created a conversational vibe the H&H musicians reveled in and cuts and camera angles underscored.

Two types of celebration vied for dominance from the very start with the opening march’s orderly solemnity questioned first by the subtle snark from Jonathan Hess’s timpani then by the smaller ensemble piping up with a lighter, more impulsive melody. The chattering amongst the H&H musicians, though spirited, remained unresolved and the increasingly tipsy Minuet which followed hinted at the near meltdown of the third movement with its frequent stops and starts, interruption of the main theme by a dignified Adagio and a rustic dance Allegro (thought by some to be witty quotes of popular melodies now unknown), and the descent of orderly conversation into mischievous bluster.

The Handel and Haydn Society violinists
© H+H Society

Unlike her male counterparts cited before, who failed to observe the three pauses in this movement, Nosky brought everyone to a full stop to great comic effect. Her whimsical improvisations – a couple of fanfares and a flurry of pizzicato – coaxed the movement back on track until the main theme finally stood alone and raced to the finish... but not before the timpani asserted themselves, blurting a brief improvisatory outburst of their own. A wild ride and great fun.

Eine kleine Nachtmusik was a wide-awake representation of different modes of celebration, benefiting from the same clarity, verve and light touch as the serenade. Save for the cellos, the musicians performed standing. No hijinks or tension here, though, just a feeling of languor and contentment. Still, either party would be a welcome token to us all of things to come.

The Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra
© H+H Society

Bonus performances of Mozart’s Church  Sonatas nos. 4 and 7 for violin, cello and organ closed the stream. Rarely performed, they briefly bridged the pause between the Epistle and the Gospel in the celebration of the Mass and exemplify the young Mozart’s occasional compositions for a liturgical setting. 

This performance was reviewed from the Handel and Haydn Society video stream