Monday 10 August 2009

Salzburg Festival (3): Mozarteum Orchestra/Lonquich, 8 August 2009

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum

Mozart – Six German Dances, KV 571
Mozart – Symphony no.36 in C major, KV 425, ‘Linz’
Mozart – Masonic Funeral Music, KV 477/479a
Mozart – Piano concerto no.22 in E-flat major, KV 482

Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra
Alexander Lonquich (piano/conductor)

The Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra has a long history of presenting Mozart-Matinee concerts at the Festival. This one presented Alexander Lonquich in a dual role as pianist and conductor. The programme opened with a good account of the Six German Dances, KV 571: like so much ‘occasional’ Mozart, heard far too infrequently. This is deluxe dance music by any standards, of greater musical interest than any Johann Strauss waltz, whatever the considerable charms of the latter. Sometimes, when I have heard the Mozarteum Orchestra of late, there has been a tendency towards certain ‘period’ mannerisms; thankfully there was none of this here. The strings exhibited considerable warmth throughout, with characterful woodwind and percussion contributions also making their mark in a rhythmically incisive performance. Sometimes Lonquich’s direction edged a little in the direction of the hard-driven, never excessively so, but a little more time to breathe on occasion would not have been a bad thing. Nevertheless, this was a performance of considerable charm, which would only pale besides head-to-head comparisons with Willy Boskovsky and his Viennese ensemble.

Next came the Linz symphony, which I recall hearing in my very first Mozart-Matinee, in 1996, under Leopold Hager. I think I also heard it more recently from this orchestra and Ivor Bolton. None of these performances would qualify as a once-in-a-lifetime account, but equally none has disappointed. The Mozarteum Orchestra has Mozart in its blood; such consistency matters – and shows. Lonquich stood broadly in the category of modern, chamber-size Mozart. Tempi tended to be on the faster side of what one – or perhaps I should say ‘I’ – might prefer but without the exaggerations of the all too prevalent attention-seekers who inflict themselves upon eighteenth-century music. For instance, the Adagio introduction to the first movement sounded more like an Andante, and the Andante certainly walked with a limited amount of time to reach its destination. Neither sounded excessively rushed, however, and structural delineation was clear throughout. The Presto sounded spot on, I thought, not quite a headlong rush, but with more than a hint of Haydnesque wit. Special mention should certainly be granted to the Mozarteum Orchestra’s woodwind, all of whom sounded simply divine.

The weakest performance, sadly, was that of the Masonic Funeral Music. It seemed oddly programmed in this context and that was also how it sounded. Programming, however, was less at fault than Lonquich’s determination to push the pace at all times. If ever Mozart needed space to breathe, it is here. Rather than profoundly disquieting, this merely sounded odd.

The great E-flat concerto received a decent performance but this is one of those works in which one can hardly help but refer back to great performances of the past. I tend to think that pianists should be wary of directing Mozart’s concertos from the keyboard; those who are not themselves first-rate conductors tend perforce to fall a little short in both capacities. This is of course no issue for a Barenboim, or, indeed, for various pianists – such as Perahia and Pollini – whom we might do well to hear more often as conductors, but it was not clear from this performance that Lonquich is ready to join their ranks. His piano playing was technically competent throughout, though never did it betoken an especial affinity for this most elusive of composers. Semiquaver passagework tended to sound simply as passagework; a greater melodic, musical meaning was often absent. In Mozart, every note must count, for there is absolutely nowhere to hide. I do not know whose cadenzas were performed but I know plenty that are preferable.

Once again, however, the orchestral woodwind was on superlative form. The Harmoniemusik passages, not least in the slow section of the finale, were truly ravishing, though I had the impression that a slight stiffness was owed to Lonquich’s direction. The only quibble I had with the orchestral performance was the size of the string section. Whilst the Mozarteum’s acoustic had granted plenty of bloom to a smallish section – eight first violins and so forth – during the earlier works, there were occasions when the strings sounded pressed, having slightly to force their tone. For whatever reason, this was less the case during the unexpected, and in many ways delightful, encore, the Adagio from the Piano concerto in A major, KV 488, its rare F-sharp minor tonality and Neapolitan harmonies proving quite beguiling.