By the time Mozart wrote his No.40, all was not well with the composer: his health and that of his wife were failing and his latest opera Don Giovanni was a financial flop in Vienna. It was a trying time, he got to write fast and furiously to stave off bankruptcy. He rose to the challenge. He wrote 3 symphonies in the space of 3 months from June to August, 1788: his 39th, 40th and 41st! The 4 movements of the 40th,scored for a chamber orchestra are in sonata form (except the third):
1. Molto allegro in 2/2
2. Andante in E-flat major in 6/8
3. Menuetto. Allegretto – Trio in 3/4
4. Finale. Allegro assai in 2/2
The first begins most vigorously with its main theme, with softer passages by the winds and one senses already the stirrings of a budding Beethoven but Mozart is always Mozart, he can never do with lightness and elegance. The second is a bit slow, and one feels beneath that graceful and classical balance of the first strings a certain very insistent darkness from the lower strings, the only consistent lightness being retained by the winds. The third is a much brighter affair, with the strong lilting rhythm and the variation of the main theme played by the strings being repeated by the winds, as if Mozart is making a heroic effort to stave off the looming darkness of the second and return to his habitual elegance and grace.The fourth movement is rather like the first in many ways: very vigorous, almost half a Beethoven now. No wonder my friends complain during the intermission that it's not at all like the Mozart that they know. They're right. The Mozart of the 40th, is not what he was 15 years ago! People do change, Mozart not excepted.
After the intermission, we had another very unusual piece. Strauss' account of his own life in music. One gets an inkling of what he's trying to do from the titles of the various "symphonic poems":
1. The Hero's Adversaries ie. the shrill and annoying sound of the woodwinds and brass of Strauss' critics;
2. The Hero's Helpmate: Strauss' domineering, endearing and unpredictable wife, represented by the solo first violin;
3. The Hero's Battlefield, in which the theme of his wife come in from time to time to sustain the hero in his struggle against his enemies;
4. The Hereo's Works of Peace in which Strauss makes reference to the motifs of various of his own previous works like Macbeth, Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Till Eulenspiegel, Thus Spake Zarathustra and Don Quixote but so well integrated into the music that it really takes an expert ear to discover that they are there at all and
5. The Hero's retreat from the World and his Fulfillment, in which the critics continue to pester the hero but is vigorously silenced by the hero's counter attack following which the hero becomes much calmer as he reminisces about this past struggles before dying.
The HKPO under Van Zweden gave an excellent performance and in particular, Wang Jing who is superb in his portrayal of Strauss' wife. As usual, the applauses are loud and long. My friends were speculating if there would be an encore. I shook my head. It did not shake in vain. One mustn't be greedy!