Mozart: Piano Concerto no.27 in B flat, KV 595
Mozart: Requiem Mass in D minor, KV 626
Mitsuko Uchida (piano)
Marie Arnet (soprano)
Anna Stéphany (mezzo-soprano)
Andrew Kennedy (tenor)
Darren Jeffery (bass)
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis (conductor)
In the second of the LSO concerts celebrating Sir Colin Davis's eightieth birthday, he turned his attention to Mozart, one of the composers with whom he is most closely associated. It would be no exaggeration to describe him as perhaps the greatest living Mozartian. Since nowadays we must be grateful to be spared Mozart on period instruments or at least, performed according to something erroneously called 'period style', the competition is not fierce. But Sir Colin is undoubtedly one of the great Mozart conductors of any era, and in this sense the rivalry would be intense indeed. Not that there is any need to think in terms of 'competition': the greater the number of musicians who can perform the most difficult music of all, the better.
It almost goes without saying that the performances were excellent, which they were. However, I did not feel that this was Davis at his very best. I wonder whether, at least in the beginning, this may partly be attributed to the orchestra. Certainly, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House responded far more keenly from the outset, in Davis's recent Così fan tutte. Here, the opening of Mozart's final piano concerto was slightly tentative, with a little edginess amongst the violins. This is a fragile work indeed, but fragility is a different thing from tentativeness. Mitsuko Uchida's contribution, however, was well nigh faultless. Her beauty and subtlety of touch seems ideally suited to Mozart, and perhaps to works such as this in particular. Here there are no festal trumpet and drums moments; all is elegy, even when, indeed perhaps particularly when, the sadness lies in the major mode. The opening of the slow movement was delectable indeed, as were the woodwind responses. This sounded like true chamber music. The delicacy of the 'hunting' 6/8 finale - the apparent contradiction is quite deliberate - sounded as it should: a memory of former times, and therefore tinged with ineffable sadness. Davis guided the proceedings, but after the slight initial awkwardness, the level of orchestral playing was such that on occasion he appeared - this may of course be deceptive - to have little to do, beyond benign encouragement. This he was well placed to offer. Uchida's 'encore' began as a reminiscence of Don Giovanni, but soon metamorphosed into 'Happy Birthday', joined by the orchestra - and a cake.
It was refreshing to have a performance of the Requiem unencumbered by editorial 'improvements', which celebrated the fine job that Süssmayr accomplished. We shall never quite know the truth about this work, which adds to its fascination, but the mastery points to Mozartian inspiration at almost every turn. Sir Colin's forthright approach to choral Mozart was much in evidence here, although there were instances of the greater flexibility that has characterised some of his more recent essays more generally in Mozart performance. (It is interesting to note that he now seems to favour greater flexibility of tempo than he does in Beethoven.) The singing of the London Symphony Chorus was more or less beyond reproach; that of the soloists was perfectly adequate but, sadly, far from memorable. It seemed as though there had been a decision to engage young soloists: admirable in itself, but the character of experience would not have gone amiss, especially in a work we all 'know' so well.
The orchestra, however, was not remotely tentative here, sounding truly galvanised in all sections. Yet on occasion there was a slight relentlessness, which might have been alleviated by a more differentiated sense of light and shade. Even the Day of Judgement should be allowed its moments of hope, and equally important, its moments of truly Mozartian ambivalence. This was a relatively minor reservation however, for one truly felt the presence of the Angel of Death. As so often in Davis's recent conducting, the angel of Klemperer - just think what a Mozart Requiem would have been like... - seemed present too.