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Quartet for oboe (soprano saxophone) and strings, K. 370

November 20, 2022: Steven Banks, Saxophonist-Composer Xak Bjerken, Piano, Principal Strings of The Met Orchestra

Mozart was entranced by what he called the “delightfully pure tone” of oboist Friedrich Ramm when they met in Mannheim in 1777. Ramm, who was thirty-three at the time, had served as principal oboe of the Mannheim Court Orchestra since he was nineteen, having joined the orchestra at the age of fourteen! Mozart presented him with a copy of his Oboe Concerto (written for Giuseppe Ferlendis in Salzburg), with which Ramm soon created a sensation. The following year in Paris, Ramm enthusiastically anticipated playing one of the four solo wind parts in Mozart’s newly composed Sinfonia concertante (now lost in its original form). Mozart reported that he “flew into a rage” when he learned its performance had been blocked by the director of the Concert Spirituel, Joseph Legros, owing to the machinations of rival composer Giuseppe Cambini.

In the winter of 1780–81, Mozart met up with his friend Ramm again in Munich, where the composer was presenting his opera Idomeneo and where the oboist had moved with the court orchestra when Karl Theodor became Elector of Bavaria. There in the first months of 1781 Mozart wrote his Oboe Quartet for Ramm, thereby adding a priceless gem to the chamber music literature.

In this performance, the soprano saxophone (henceforth referred to as “soloist”) takes the oboe part, presenting most of the work’s enchanting melodies and offering brilliant displays of virtuosity, particularly in the finale. Mozart even offers the wind player a chance for a cadenza in the slow movement. Lest this soloistic treatment and the three- rather than four-movement structure suggest a concerto, it should be said that the Quartet still engages the listener in the more intimate discourse of chamber music. Particularly alluring are the interchanges between the soloist and the violin, as in the first movement when Mozart’s “second theme” consists of the violin now rendering the opening theme while the soloist joins in with a soaring countermelody.

The slow movement must have displayed Ramm’s singing tone admirably—and now does the same for that of Steven Banks. Indeed, Mozart treats the melody much like that of an aria, exhibiting not only the soloist’s ability to sustain a long line but to negotiate wide leaps such as he often required of his singers.

The soloist dominates again in the Rondeau (Mozart employed the French spelling), presenting all three occurrences of the jolly refrain. The second contrasting episode contains an extremely unusual device for Mozart: the soloist switches to duple meter while the violin, viola, and cello carry on merrily in the prevailing triple meter, creating a delightful if brief tension. Passages of rapid figuration and further wide leaps test the soloist’s agility, and several times Mozart’s writing ascends to lofty heights—as at the piece’s conclusion—again demonstrating his full confidence in the artistry of his friend.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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