Although this concert, part of the Wigmore’s on-going ‘Mozart Odyssey’, was to celebrate Mozart’s birthday, influential clarinettist Anton Stadler (1753-1812) was very much present, with two of the three works most definitely written for him, and the Serenade most likely to have been composed for Stadler’s 1784 benefit concert in Vienna. Of course this gave centre stage to clarinettist Michael Collins who also directed the London Winds and the City of London Sinfonia.

The Serenade for 13 wind instruments (Gran Partita) is a mammoth chamber work, the pinnacle of Mozart’s ‘Harmoniemusik’ (wind ensemble music). Room was tight on stage, so the four horns were relegated to a second row, which was a shame, with the double bass (the 13th ‘wind’ instrument!) positioned in the centre. Immediately from the launch into the Allegro after the opening it was clear that this was to be a lively and incisive performance from the London Winds, with great ensemble and clear communication between players. Mozart creates variety by occasionally paring down the forces, so in the first Menuetto, we have one Trio for the quartet of clarinets and basset horns, and another predominantly featuring the oboes and bassoons. Aside from variety, this has the practical advantage of giving players a rest in what is a demanding play, requiring significant stamina. The first bassoon deserves particular mention for some impressive articulation, particularly in the faster central section of the Romance, where he was ably joined by the double bass, and a cracking solo episode in the Rondo. Other highlights included the extended Theme & Variations movement, with undulating inner part writing for clarinets and basset horns, and some more rapid articulation, this time from the second clarinet in the fourth variation. There were only one or two moments of lapsed ensemble, including occasionally slightly loose tutti pickups, but otherwise, this was chamber music making at its best.

Mozart was travelling with Stadler at the time of writing La Clemenza di Tito, so it’s no surprise that he gave Stadler a starring role in two arias. Sesto’s Act one aria, ‘Parto, ma tu ben mio’ is a beautiful plea for the love and attention of Vitellia, and the clarinet’s role in this duet is to express that love that is never returned. In the slow opening section, Christine Rice’s warm voice blended wonderfully with Collins’ smooth tone.  Yet it is the clarinet that leads proceedings in the central allegro, perhaps signifying compliant Sesto’s desperate eagerness to follow. Rice performed with great spirit, and injected a note of irony into the repeated pleas of ‘Guardami’ (‘Look at me’). In the final rapid explosion of energy her coloratura was razor sharp, an impressive performance.

Collins brought out a reconstructed basset clarinet to perform the Concerto – basically an A clarinet with an extension to add lower notes, whilst still retaining the instrument’s upper range. Mozart’s original manuscript is lost, and the published edition contains many passages with sudden U-turns in runs to make allowances for the shorter range of the standard clarinet – it is only with the basset clarinet that these runs can be restored to Mozart’s supposed original intentions. However, it’s actually the darker tones of the lower notes that are most noticeable when one hears the Concerto performed on this instrument. 

Collins, conducting when not playing, set the Allegro off at a bright tempo, and the small-scale string forces of the City of London Sinfonia were perfectly scaled, complemented by Mozart’s mellow additional scoring of only flutes, bassoons and horns. Collins’ tone was warm and the lower registers of the instrument enhanced the rippling contours of the clarinet part, when not in command of the tune. The sublime Adagio was taken at a steady tempo, avoiding overindulgence, and the beautiful yearning of the falling phrases was perfectly poised to set up the deceptively simple sequentially rising repetition of the melody’s second half. Once again, the lower reaches of the instrument bring darkness to the mood, which only adds to its poignancy. For the melody’s final return, Collins and the players dropped to a dry pianissimo, making those falling phrases (subtly ornamented) achingly sad. The strings were ever so slightly cautious in placing their final chords in an otherwise highly memorable and arresting Adagio. My only criticism here would be that when Collins was playing and not clearly directing the players, there needed to be a clearer lead to maintain ensemble. The perky Rondo finale swept away the sadness – although the minor key episodes are not without darkness, with the clarinet swirling chromatically below the surface. In preparation for the final showy return of the theme, Mozart stalls progress with halting pauses – here, the placement could have been cleaner. But the bravura finish from Collins brought the birthday celebrations to a suitably joyful conclusion.