Saturday, 14 July 2007

Mostly Mozart Festival, opening concert, Friday 13 July 2007

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Piano Concerto no.17 in G major, KV 453

Mass in C minor, KV 427/417a

Stefan Vladar (piano)

Susan Gritton (soprano)
Lucy Crowe (soprano)
Thomas Walker (tenor)
Iain Paterson (bass)

Mostly Mozart Festival Chorus

Academy of St Martin in the Fields

Louis Langrée (conductor)

The Barbican's Mostly Mozart Festival began, bravely and/or confidently competing with the First Night of the Proms, with one of the most ravishingly beautiful of all Mozart's piano concertos and one of his two great unfinished choral masterpieces, the Mass in C minor. Louis Langrée, whom I had last encountered collapsing during a Glyndebourne performance of Don Giovanni, conducted those dependable old Mozart hands, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the orchestral mainstay of the festival. With the exception of an occasional slight dullness in the string tone – which one cannot imagine ever having occurred under Sir Neville Marriner – the Academy sounded much as it always has done: a small orchestra (strings were proportioned 8:6:4:4:2) of soloists, led by Kenneth Sillito, evincing a mostly exquisite polish and great clarity of tone. Signs of influence from the 'authentic' brigade were few and far between.

Stefan Vladar was a fine soloist in the concerto. His pearly tone stood closer, thinking of renowned Mozart pianists, to Murray Perahia's than to that of Daniel Barenboim, which was fitting for a Classical rather than a Romantic reading. An especially delightful facet of his performance was the ease with which he made those frequent horn-like figures in the left hand truly sound like a pair of horns; the orchestral pair of horns also shone in their antiphonal responses to the piano. At the end of the magical second movement's cadenza, beautifully played if a little distended, Vladar's lingering provided for an extra beat in the bar in which the orchestra returned: not a disaster, but a little odd to hear. Elsewhere, I occasionally felt that Vladar and Langrée underlined the Classical proportions a little too emphatically, with audible pauses between sections that might profitably have been dovetailed, but no one would have been able to claim a lack of structural understanding. Vladar adopted the fashionable practice of playing, continuo-style, during some of the orchestral tuttis. I find that, particularly in the first instance, this detracts from the contrast when the soloist makes his entry, but if 'performance practice' says that it ought to be done, many will automatically follow suit. The woodwind sounded divine, imparting a truly Mozartian wind-band sound to the many passages in Mozart desires just that, and a melting command of line – what a happy combination! – whenever required to do so for their solos. The strings soon recovered from the slight dullness I mentioned at the very beginning. Vibrato was varied intelligently rather than dogmatically, for instance to heighten the darkness of the slow movement's daring chromaticism. There is more than one way to do this, of course, but this was a method which, for the most part, proved effectively. The exhilirating antics of the finale's variations met with a keen response from soloist and orchestra, to bring a welcome foretaste of Papageno to the proceedings.

The last occasion I had heard the Mass in C minor in concert was in the Abbey Church of St Peter in Salzburg. With the best will in the world, the Barbican Hall could hardly substitute for the extraordinary Baroque interior decoration, nor for the historical connection. This then, not unreasonably, was a performance in which Langrée stressed athleticism and vigour over 'rococo-operatic sweets-of-sin' (Stravinsky on Mozart's masses). On its own terms, it worked very well, even if I should have been far from unhappy to have a little more of the quality from which Stravinsky, in his neo-Classical puritanism, recoiled – and a little more mystery too.

Langrée used his own edition of the work. It was difficult for me to tell how strongly it differed from others, save that it was a torso rather than a Robert Levin-style completion. There were some passages in which the brass sounded more prominent, and the strings less so; I even fancied that some of the brass notes may have been different from other editions. However, this may simply have been a matter of the conductor's orchestral balancing, bringing out certain parts more strongly than has often been the case.

Speeds were brisk, though never eccentrically so. There was little in the way of tempo variation, save for the very end, where Langrée's rallentando was somewhat laboured. (Perhaps this was partly a product of having to draw to an end that was never intended to be the end.) The ASMF's strings really dug into their double-dotted figures with a vigour complementing that of the conductor and the chorus. Woodwind was once again of the highest quality: Jaime Martin's magic flute sounded truly beguiling, and fiendishly fast bass lines were shaped by the bassoons as if this were the easiest thing in the world. The solemn intonations of the trombones sounded both archaic and Mozartian: just as it should be, and inevitably pointing forward to the Requiem. The timpanist certainly made his presence felt, although his hard sticks – which may well, of course, have been the conductor's choice – jarred with the rest of the orchestral blend. This was the only real concession to the 'period' lobby, and one we could well have done without.

The vocal soloists all acquitted themselves well. Susan Gritton's performance was surprisingly operatic, in an almost nineteenth-century sense during the Christe eleison. Indeed, Verdi did not sound so very far away, yet Gritton remained just on the side of what would have worked stylistically. Her willingness to forgo anything redolent of Meissen china provided a most welcome instruction in full-blooded Mozart singing. Lucy Crowe was a splendid late replacement for the indisposed Cora Burggraaf. Her coloratura was spellbinding, not to mention note-perfect and unblemished in its articulation. Thomas Walker's rather English tenor was never too much so, and Iain Paterson shone in his restricted role. The nicely contrasted voices stood out from each other during ensembles, yet provided a well-judged harmonic blend too, for which I am sure part of the praise must be attributed to the conductor. Paterson's resonant bass made Walker's tone sound a little bleached during the Benedictus, but this is a minor point.

The chorus was also very fine. If it lacked the great corporate personality of established choirs, it complemented the orchestra well as a parallel collection of soloists. Forty-strong, it was a little on the small side, but made up for this in musical expertise. Lines were distinct in fugal passages, without sounding mannered. In the homophonic doxological sections, this really did sound like a throng of angels praising the Almighty, never more so than in the Gloria, with its resounding Handel quotations on 'in excelsis'. There would have been little point in trying to imitate the sound of an Austro-German choir, and these singers did not.

Indeed, whilst my preference, speaking more generally, undoubtedly leans towards a performance such as that of the Wiener Singverein and the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan, or the Berlin Radio Choir and the same orchestra under Abbado, this was a very good – and in some cases, excellent – performance of its kind: on a relatively small scale, using modern instruments. It augured well for the rest of the Barbican's festival and for the future success of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.