How much Mozart is too much Mozart? While few would balk at an evening made up of a complete mature Mozart opera or the Requiem, a concert consisting entirely of his Divertimenti is a more challenging proposition; how to hold the audience’s attention with a set of pieces with the same instrumentation and predominantly the same optimistic and exuberant mood? And indeed, while they abound in imaginative touches and become more sophisticated in form and harmony as the set progresses, and while the performances of Ensemble Zefiro were consistently engaging, this full evening concert of only these divertimenti definitely had its longueurs.

Ensemble Zefiro © Ensemble Zefiro
Ensemble Zefiro
© Ensemble Zefiro

The term 'divertimento' doesn't imply any particular specific musical form, but in Mozart's case these divertimenti for wind take on the shape of small symphonies (mostly in four movements). The term does suggest that the pieces will be diverting in a light-hearted, fun fashion and Mozart’s examples are certainly this. Composed between 1775 and 1777, these works have been surmised to have been written as Tafelmusik (dinner music) for the court of Mozart's employer the Archbishop of Salzburg. But in his brief introduction, Ensemble Zefiro director Alfredo Bernardini suggested that they were intended for open-air performance in the streets of Salzburg. The five presented here are companion pieces, all for the same combination of six wind instruments: a pair each of oboes, horns and bassoons. Ensemble Zefiro employs the original instruments of Mozart’s period, the sounds of which were demonstrated for the audience as something of a palate-cleanser between the divertimenti in the second half. Each instrument brought an intriguing amount of tone colours across their range but the very vagaries in the nature of the instruments also led to some sloppiness of ensemble and tuning. Particularly noticeable was the difficulty the horns often had in fast passagework.

Things started off extremely promising with the opening of the Divertimento in F major, K213. The oboes flashed brilliantly in perfectly coordinated runs and the performance took off with great swing and vigour, while the second movement featured oboe and bassoon in an appealingly piquant combination of timbres. The final Contredance en Rondeau showed similar virtues with superb forward momentum and a sense of the hunt, until the horn's solo moments towards the end, an example of their aforementioned difficulty with fast passagework, in which they veered dangerously out of tune.

The first movement of the second Divertimento in B flat major, K240 allowed the bassoon to feature its own athletic virtuosity and the whole ensemble showed off its command of dynamics superbly. The instruments took on a warmer, richer texture in the slow movement with an impressive amount of depth of tone considering the size of the ensemble. The blasts from the horns provided additional interest to the texture. Ensemble Zefiro ably affected a bagpipe-like droning in the Menuetto and made the most of the melody, dancing elegantly between instruments in the final movement.

Some variety appears in the third Divertimento (E flat major, K252/K240a) where the first movement is not a sonata form Allegro but instead a languid Andante with oboe melodies rendered particularly soulfully by Ensemble Zefiro's two oboists, though the unrelenting ebullience of the mood was beginning to become tiring. Furthermore, the second movement featured another taxing horn part that was only intermittently executed successfully. The final movement brought the first half of the concert to a rousing conclusion.

The fourth Divertimento (F major, K253) once again bucks the formal trend by opening with what is, frankly, a fairly uninteresting set of variations. The players did their best to enliven it with exaggerated cadenzas that mostly had their desired comic effect. The fifth and final is the most elaborate of the set, harmonically and formally, with a delightfully varied recapitulation to the first movement that was handled most amiably. Each of the instrumentalists gave their best, playing their solos with winning rubato in the Menuetto and the first bassoon making the most of its big moment in the last movement. Setting aside the horn difficulties, these were winning performances of pieces all too rarely encountered in the concert hall. But it was also clear as to why they’re not too often encountered, at least as a set.