Monday, 2 February 2009

Salzburg Mozartwoche (4): Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Harding - Pintscher, Mozart, and Boulez

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum, Salzburg

Matthias Pintscher – Transir: concerto for flute and chamber orchestra
Mozart – Lucio Silla, KV 135: ‘Il tenero momento’ and ‘Pupile amate’
Mozart – La clemenza di Tito, KV 621: ‘Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio’
Boulez – Mémoriale (...explosante-fixe... Originel), for flute and eight instruments
Mozart – Symphony no.41 in C major, KV 551, ‘Jupiter’

Magali Mosnier (flute)
Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano)
Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Daniel Harding (conductor)

This final concert of the Salzburg Mozartwoche was clearly intended as a summation of some of the festival’s principal themes, including as it did three of the four featured composers; only Haydn was missing. Matthias Pintscher showed in Transir, his concerto for flute and chamber orchestra from 2005-6, what a resourceful, intriguing, and successful composer he is. Inspired by the idea that the flute in one form or another is one of the most ancient of all musical instruments and by its close relationship to and extension of human breath itself, Pintscher has written that he wished to explore the ‘particular aura’ of the flute as an instrument. This comes across in the work, as do the prehistoric antecedents. Before the soloist even enters, we hear noises from the orchestra that one might characterise as almost flute-like, or perhaps as straining towards the flute-like. Then we hear the flute work towards – and sometimes veering beyond? – a conventional tone, through Berio-like extended techniques, evoking the mists of time and yet remaining very much of our own. Violent, exotic sounds emanate from the orchestra, riotous sections recalling to me Boulez’s ongoing Notations. It is as if we are hearing a dialogue between soloist and orchestra that in some sense represents the creation of music itself. ‘Liminal’ is a word sorely over-used but it seems apt here. Moreover, Pintscher utilises all sections of his chamber orchestra to marvellous effect. The young players of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra clearly relished this opportunity and impressed, as did Daniel Harding, with rhythmical exactitude. There is a great sense of drama: incipient, immanent, and imminent, and the ending leaves us in response. What next? The young French flautist, Magali Mosnier was in her element throughout, displaying an astonishing technique fully worthy of a piece premiered by Emmanuel Pahud.

So did she also in Boulez’s Mémoriale, which I had been fortunate enough to hear in a Proms performance last summer from the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Twice within a matter of months: I may be deluding myself but I do sense a broader popular response recently to Boulez’s music. Once again, the composer was in the audience to receive applause, although he seemed only just to have arrived, still wearing a scarf and overcoat. Febrile, almost glassy strings at the opening hinted at the work’s electronic origins. Mosnier’s trills were extremely beautiful – and very modern-‘flute-like’. It was as if Pintscher had prepared the way for an almost classical statement of the instrument’s charms and capabilities.

In between the Pintscher and Boulez works, we heard three Mozart arias from Susan Graham. The first two came from the early, yet in many ways astonishing, opera seria, Lucio Silla. From the opening of her first recitative, ‘Dunque sperar poss’io di pascer gl’occhi miei,’ Graham displayed fine diction, musicality, and dramatic flair. I was less enamoured with the vibrato-less string accompaniment. Thankfully, vibrato was permitted in the aria itself, ‘Il tenero momento’. I cannot deny that I should have preferred more, but at least we were not subjected to hair-shirt sonorities. Graham’s coloratura was dazzling, not least in its clarity, whilst the woodwind chuckled away delectably. And the heroic nature of Graham’s mezzo proved a fine substitute for the castrato voice. I was impressed by the way that Harding treated this as grown-up music, helping it sound as close to Gluck and yet as distinctly Mozartian as it truly is. ‘Pupille amate’ provided contrast, presenting Mozart in seductive triple-time mode. He can certainly move the listener, even at this stage in his career. Hushed tone was employed here – unlike the previous night’s G minor symphony – for expressive rather than narcissistic purposes. Sesto’s aria, with its celebrated clarinet obbligato, received at least as fine a reading. This may have been Mozart closer to Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s example than I prefer, but it was coherently so. Harding’s projection of the orchestral part was virile rather than merely vexed (Rattle). Moreover, the tempi seemed just right – and dramatically flexible. Graham likewise presented no contradiction between the musical line and dramatic projection. Such was the vividness of her portrayal that one would have had a very good idea what the words meant, even if one lacked acquaintance either with the Italian language or with La clemenza di Tito. This was exemplary Mozart singing.

The final work in the concert and the final work of the festival was, appropriately enough, Mozart’s last symphony, the Jupiter. Whatever reservations I might voice, this was on the whole a performance I enjoyed greatly, and certainly a performance that far outshone the aforementioned Rattle fortieth. Despite a slightly smaller orchestra (nine first violins to the VPO’s ten), there was often a much fuller sound. This was doubtless partly a result of the smaller hall – why do many conductors fail to recognise that a larger hall requires a larger orchestra? – but also of Harding’s more direct, vigorous style. There was nothing ascetic, let alone condescending, to this. One was keenly aware of trumpets and drums: a hallmark of Mozart in his rejoicing mode of C major. Whilst vibrato was occasionally somewhat on the low side, it was thoughtfully varied rather than dogmatically eliminated. Sometimes, the MCO strings sounded delightfully sweet. Moreover, there was a wonderful, almost Abbado-like sense of the players listening and responding to each other, although Harding projected a more dominant personality than his mentor has often been wont to do.

The structure of the first movement was admirably clear and there was a true sense of return for the recapitulation. I was not sure about the occasional rhetorical pauses Harding imposed. In fact, I was sure: they were disruptive. Otherwise, there was a good sense of line, at least with respect to musical paragraphs, and phrasing was consistently stylish. There were a few imperfections of ensemble from the second movement’s muted violins, but the haunting veiled quality achieved made that a price worth paying. This Andante cantabile was not slow but nor was it rushed; rather it flowed. Magical woodwind solos were a particular highlight. If on occasion, some of the music was a little too moulded, that was as nothing when compared to Rattle’s exaggerations. Harding’s minuet was boisterous rather than stately; it was rather fun, but is that what it should be? Its chromatic harmonies were nicely handled though. The trio was similar, though the minor-key episode exuded an apposite vehemence. However, I did not care at all for the pause imposed prior to the return of the minuet; the music was simply left hanging. Normally, I should not have cared for the second-time observation of repeats; Mozart’s music, however, is so rich, that I was quite happy to hear it as much as possible. The great finale was contrapuntal in character from (almost) the outset. Mozart’s learned Fuxian side fuses imperceptibly with his expressive energy to produce something quite astonishing here – and for the most part, this is just how it sounded on this occasion. Harding’s Jupiter was festal; this is, of course, C major. It exhibited a fine swagger – and why not? And perhaps most importantly, it was urgent. Harding – and his orchestra – also displayed a good ear for oft-overlooked orchestral detail, without making it seem like perverse point-scoring. A true sense of dramatic purpose characterised the movement’s sweep and here there were no disruptions to the greater line. The second repeat was taken, which in most Classical symphonies seems at best a waste of time, but in this case is quite justified on account of the coda. There was a strange instance of flute ornamentation during the recapitulation, which was not a slip, since it happened on the first and second time around. Where I felt a slight sense of anti-climax, oddly enough, was in the astonishing coda with its quintuple invertible counterpoint. There is much to be said for permitting the contrapuntal miracle to speak for itself but Harding might just have pushed it a little more dramatically, especially given the added tension arising from the second repeat. In that context, the blaring of the trumpets sounded rather overdone. Nevertheless, this remained an estimable, winningly youthful account.