There is really no “unknown” Mozart these days. For the 225th anniversary of his death, the Universal record company released the newest of several (!) complete editions of every note Mozart wrote. So, everything we have written by the “miracle which God let be born in Salzburg” is readily available to twenty-first century listeners.
Nevertheless, even Mozart fans tend to stick to the tried-and-true, the perennial favorites—whether it is the “Jupiter” symphony, a late piano concerto, Figaro, or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Therefore, to help expand your Mozartian horizons, dear readers, allow me to recommend ten pieces by the master that you likely have not heard but should hear. I have noted next to each work what more popular Mozart piece it resembles. Also listed next to each recommended, little-known piece is the Köchel catalogue number, for your convenience.
1. Regina Coeli, K. 185 (if you like the Exsultate Jubilate)
Overshadowed by the popular Exsultate Jubilate, which was written two years later, the Regina Coeli also features the soprano voice and is hardly less beautiful. The fifteen-year-old Mozart opens and closes the piece with a bouncy, joyous tune for chorus. In between are two contemplative sections featuring a soprano soloist (she gets to show off in the concluding “Alleluia” too).
2. Notturno for Four Orchestras, K. 286 (if you like the Serenata Notturna)
Mozart achieves an incredible effect in this charming nocturne, the four small ensembles participating in an echoing conversation. Beware, however: many conductors on record have failed to achieve this acoustic effect; stick with the recording below by Jordi Savall, the only readily-available recording that gets it right.
3. Les Petits Riens, K. 299b (if you like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik)
Mozart wrote a goodly number of dances during his short lifetime. In 1778, he was commissioned to write ballet music for an opera, Les Petits Riens (The Small Things), a work by an obscure composer, Niccolo Piccini. Other composers also contributed dance music to the production. There are few recordings of these charming trifles. The recording recommended below includes both the dances known to be the work of Mozart and other numbers that may have been written by Mozart.
4. Symphony No. 32, K. 318 (if you like Mozart’s overtures and symphonies)
This eight-minute, tri-partite mini-symphony is a delight. It opens with a smash, and the excitement never lets up over the course of the three-minute first movement. After a brief and pretty andante, the finale rushes in, building to an absolutely thrilling, and quintessentially Mozartean, flourish of an ending, full of swagger and high spirits. Mozart’s genius is here encapsulated in a mere eight minutes. (Please note that the recommended recording currently sells as an mp3 download for an amazing $8.99 and includes all Mozart’s symphonies—some twelve hours of music!)
5. Eine Kleine Freimaurer Kantate, K. 623 (if you like the Masonic Funeral Music)
Yes, the Köchel number is correct; Mozart wrote his “Little Freemason Cantata” about a month before he died for the dedication of the new location for his Masonic Lodge. It is rare that late Mozart is overlooked; perhaps the Masonic associations and the unusual structure and unexpectedly peppy nature of the piece (we like the Romantic notion of the dying and haunted young Mozart) have hindered its popularity. This is not a masterpiece, but the jaunty opening and closing of the work alone make it worth the occasional hearing. Admittedly, the cantata is nothing in spirit like the somber Mason Funeral Music noted above—and you may not even be familiar with that piece, though it is likely a “filler” on your recording of the Requiem—but if Masonic associations do not bother you, then perhaps you will enjoy this happy, twelve-minute cantata extolling the supposed virtues of Freemasonry.
6. La Finta Giardiniera, K. 196 (if you like Le Nozze di Figaro)
Composed by Mozart at the age of eighteen, La Finta Giardiniera (“The Phony Gardener”) is a comic opera of the kind perfected by Mozart in his later collaboration with the librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. The opera, which Mozart arranged for a trimmed-down orchestra, flopped in the composer’s lifetime, but it was revived five years after his death in Prague with a fuller orchestration, which may or may not have been by Mozart. In any case, the fully-orchestrated version sounds like mature Mozart and thus feels closer to the Mozart/Da Ponte opera trilogy of Figaro-Don Giovanni-Così fan tutte. We at last have a recording of this fully-orchestrated version, thanks to the ever-enterprising conductor, Rene Jacobs.
7. Duet, “Per questa tue manine,” from Don Giovanni, K. 527 (if you like Don Giovanni)
You have likely never heard or seen Don Giovanni as Mozart intended. After its premier in Prague, he re-worked parts of the opera for the Vienna production, giving the tenor playing Masetto a new aria better suited to his vocal talents and writing an entirely new scene for the Don’s servant, Leporello, and the country girl, Zerlina. For at least the last century it has been common to stage a hybrid version of the Prague and Vienna versions, one that however dispenses with the duet, “Per queste tue manine,” which has apparently been considered too silly by many conductors for an opera that culminates in the protagonist’s going to Hell. Yet Mozart himself considered Don Giovanni sui generis, neither opera buffa nor opera seria; rather, he and Da Ponte termed it a dranma giocoso, a funny drama, and “Per queste tue manine” well encapsulates the dual nature of Mozart’s creation. In the scene, the scorned Zerlina, another of the lascivious Don’s victims, threatens Leporello with a razor.
8. La Betulia Liberata, K. 118 (if you like Idomeneo or La Clemenza da Tito)
Based on the Biblical Book of Judith, this is Mozart’s only oratorio. But its serious libretto (the story tell of the barbarian general Holofernes’ beheading by the Israelite widow, Judith) and its setting in Italian make it in some respects a precursor to Mozart’s later opera seria, Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito. Full of excellent arias, one must keep reminding oneself that this was the creation a fifteen-year-old.
9. Thamos, König in Ägypten, K. 345/336a (if you like Die Zauberflöte)
Mozart composed this incidental music in his twenties for a play about the machinations of dynastic succession in Egypt. The score includes choruses reminiscent of serious music of the Sarastro’s temple guards in The Magic Flute. The orchestral interludes are not mere trifles but are quite dramatic.
10. Zaide, K. 344 (if you like Die Entführung aus dem Serail)
Mozart never finished this opera, completing only the first two of three acts and never fashioning an overture. Technically a German singspiel, (“sung play”), it was a forerunner of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Mozart’s smash hit of two years later. Like that more familiar work, it is a “rescue opera,” telling a tale of Westerners kidnapped by Moorish Turks, a popular theme in an age when pirates of the Mediterranean were terrorizing European sailors. The spoken dialogue for the opera has been lost. Various attempts to “complete” the work have been made, employing other music by Mozart (often the music from Thamos, King of Egypt and sometimes, as the overture, the aforementioned Symphony No. 32) and newly-written dialogue. Zaide contains one of the most beautiful things Mozart ever wrote, the aria “Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben” (“Rest softly, my dearest life”), sung by the eponymous heroine to her beloved. The “rage” aria, “Tiger! Wetze nur die Klauen” (“Tiger! Sharpen your claws”) is also one of the composer’s greatest in the genre. If Mozart had completed the work, it would surely have ranked just a tick below his greatest dramas. Alas… But what there is of the work is amazing and should be much better known.
Books about Mozart may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.