Our Video of the Week features one of the few in-person collaborations from the Heifetz Institute’s 2020 Virtual Festival of Concerts – an energetic performance of Mozart’s Duo in B-flat major for Violin & Viola, K. 424 by two of the most well-known faces to appear on Heifetz stage over the years – violinist Rachell Ellen Wong and violist Andrew Gonzalez . This dynamic duo performs in the invariably-inspiring setting of the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, VA.
Mozart’s string duos have an interesting backstory…they were essentially written to bail out his composing buddy Michael Haydn, the younger, and not nearly as talented, brother of Joseph Haydn. The younger Haydn had been hired to be the Kapellmeister or of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg’s court, and as part of the gig he was to write a series of six duos for violin and viola. But whether it was due to illness, or legend has it, drunkenness, Haydn only finished four out of the six, and was about to get his salary cut off by the easily-enraged Prince Archbishop.
Into this stew sauntered the 27-year old Mozart, freshly returned from touring in Paris and elsewhere. Mozart himself had had his own nasty encounters with the the Prince Archbishop, who, as the both the chief political and religious figure, ruled Salzburg with an iron fist. Two years earlier, Mozart’s cheeky resignation from the Prince-Archbishop’s court was met with an infamous “kick in the arse” from the archbishop’s chief steward, Count Arco.
Mozart left under such bad terms with the Prince that upon his return to his hometown, he fretted that his former employer (again, with absolute authority) might arrest him. So it was in his interest to keep his former boss happy, and soon enough the prolific Mozart put pen to paper to dash off the remaining two duos to complete the set…and passed them off to Michael Haydn to present as his own.
But even the Archbishop could not help but notice that there was a remarkable qualitative difference between the first four rather forgettable duos, and the two gems (K. 423 in G major, and K. 424 in B-flat major) produced by Mozart. At the point in his career Mozart was considered one of the most skilled string players in all of Europe, both as a violinist and violist. Though his preference for the bigger instrument clearly shines in the B-flat major duo – the final of the set – where it often plays the lead role. Hear for yourself in the effervescent interplay between Andrew and Rachell in this performance. Enjoy, and don’t forget to subscribe to get a fresh Video of The Week in your inbox every week!
PS – This would not be the only time Mozart and Michael Haydn would “collaborate” on a composition. For many years, the younger Haydn’s Symphony No.26 was passed off as Mozart’s Symphony No. 37. Seems that an autograph of the beginning of the piece was found in Mozart’s handwriting, which was enough for it to be labeled an “undiscovered symphony by Mozart.” Soon enough sharp-eyed scholars discerned the rest of the piece to be in Michael’s handwriting…Mozart had merely touched up the composition by adding a slow, grand introduction to a rather pedestrian symphony. Which is why these days there’s a gap between Mozart’s masterpieces the “Linz” Symphony No. 36 and “Prague” Symphony No. 38!