Wednesday, 18 November 2009

ASMF/Perahia - Bach and Mozart, 17 November 2009

Barbican Hall

J.C. Bach – Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major, T 288/7*
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.17 in G major, KV 453
J.S. Bach – Piano Concerto no.3 in D major, BWV 1054
Mozart – Symphony no.38 in D major, KV 504, ‘Prague’

Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Kenneth Sillito (director*)
Murray Perahia (piano, director/conductor)

We do not often hear the ‘London Bach’. Whenever I have done, this occasion included, I have willed a revelation, which has failed to occur. This particular sinfonia concertante, with two oboes, two horns, two violins, two violas, and cello as soloists, was pleasant enough, though the first of its two movements went on a bit. It would doubtless have made reasonable Tafelmusik, but it is difficult to imagine why anyone would care one way or the other about it; even the soloists’ display is severely limited. If one is to hear such music, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, essentially an orchestra of soloists, seems a good choice to perform it. From the opening bar, the ASMF sound was present; there were no concessions to ‘authenticity’, which would merely have made bland music sound unpleasant. Violin soloists reminded us of the sound we used to hear in Italian Baroque music, before Vivaldi was captured by the purveyors of bizarre shock-effects. But it was the four-squareness, the lack of drama, which was, if anything, the abiding memory of the first movement. After that, the succession of minuets bordered on the original. It was good to hear them taken three-to-a-bar and there was a welcome sense of the evening outdoors – a notturno – in the second minuet, for two oboes, two violas, and cello/double-bass. That second movement did not outstay its welcome; I cannot put it any more strongly. An overture, whether by J.C. Bach (Catone in Utica perhaps?) or, better, by Mozart or Handel, would have been a preferable choice.

It was thus a relief to welcome Murray Perahia and Mozart to the stage. Perahia’s recording of the G major concerto, KV 453, with the English Chamber Orchestra, fulfils Mozart’s sole absolute equirement, perfection. This performance was different, in some ways falling a little short, in others digging deeper. The ASMF has a different sound from the ECO, more streamlined, and a degree less warm, and so it proved here. I was unconvinced by Perahia’s opening statement, in which there was a surprising use of left hand staccato, or at least non legato, an idea which did not appear to be pursued. Thereafter, however, he revelled in the wonders, well-nigh Schubertian, of Mozart’s modulations, and phrases were turned immaculately. The woodwind soloists were truly magical. All I missed was greater warmth, though I do not wish to exaggerate, and perhaps greater body ( from the strings.

The second movement was a true Andante, not rushed, as is the fashion nowadays. Once again, the woodwind solos (from oboe, flute, and bassoon) were exquisite. Perahia employed considerable ornamentation in the piano part. I am no fundamentalist in such matters: it can work with or without. The important thing is that it convinces, as it did here. Without ever sounding Romantic, Perahia drew upon a wide-ranging dynamic palette. More importantly, his performance proved ever sensitive to, and indeed revealing of, the music’s tonal progression, even in the cadenzas (Mozart’s). Perahia’s immersion in Schenker has clearly paid dividends. This was true to a lesser extent in the orchestral performance; as so often, I felt that a separate conductor might have added something here. The opening of the finale put a smile on my face, just as it should: the theme is so utterly lovable. Perahia’s chosen tempo seemed just right. Links to Mozart’s variations for solo piano – so often underestimated, and I am not without guilt here – were sounded, not least with the contemporary set upon Gluck’s Unser dummer Pöbel meint, KV 455. The sadness of the minore variation registered; thereafter, we heard a more forceful pianist and a more Romantic performance. Everything had changed, just as it must. If one could account for the transformative effect of that extraordinary left-hand E flat in the coda, one would explain the mystery of music. Perhaps, then, it is as well that no one has, but Perahia certainly had its measure in performance, a performance whose import deepened as it progressed.

After the interval, we heard Bach’s – Johann Sebastian's – D major piano concerto. Clarity registered from the outset, as did an unusual prominence for the piano left hand. Perahia, quite rightly, decided to emphasise the bass line as the source for everything else to come. The first movement’s ternary form was clearly navigated, its ‘B’ section affording a welcome sense of relaxation, imparting both structural and affective meaning and dynamism. Profusion of melody, again springing from the basso continuo, was the hallmark of the slow movement. Occasionally, the violins sounded a little thin in tone, but that was not an undue distraction. The finale benefited from a tempo that allowed it dignity: no headlong rush here. That sturdy foundation absent from so much modern Bach performance was present, without in any sense impeding invention. I was put in mind more than once of Edwin Fischer, and one cannot say better than that.

Last on the programme was the Prague symphony. Despite the small forces, the first movement’s extraordinary introduction spoke with crucial gravity and grandeur, permitting the exposition fully to speak of the work’s proximity to Don Giovanni. I was intrigued, if ultimately a little irritated, to note the timpanist varying the sticks he employed. Whilst the sound of the harder ones soon palled, it was at least a relief to note that their use resulted from some judgement rather than from pseudo-historical dogma. Perahia’s long-term harmonic understanding – Schenker again? – was exemplified by the relaxation that permitted so radiant a beauty for the second subject (as of course, did the musicians’ performance). The repeat was taken, but in this music and in a performance such as this, I am the last to complain. Counterpoint was clear and meaningful in the development section. Both composer and conductor had so clearly learned their Bachian lessons; it was as if we were vouchsafed a taste in miniature of the triumph of the Jupiter finale. The almost unbearable tenderness of the second subject as heard in the recapitulation permitted a telling contrast with the magnificence of the closing bars.

Though on the fast side, the Andante flowed gracefully and yielded where appropriate. The mystery of its episodes’ sternness – or at least that of some of them – was revealed, even if it eludes explanation. Perahia probed harmonically, without underlining. The world of dramma giocoso returned for the finale, its opening insistent without the slightest hint of being hard-driven. Mozart’s woodwind once again cast their magic spell. I should be intrigued to hear how Perahia would conduct this work with a larger orchestra, but this remained a distinguished and, in many respects, subtly profound performance. The treat of the finale to Haydn’s Oxford symphony was well judged: excitingly fast, but still able to breathe; eminently musical, without point-scoring.