Thursday 6 January 2011

Mozart Unwrapped (1): Aurora Orchestra/Collon, 6 January 2011

Hall One, Kings Place

Overture: La clemenza di Tito
‘Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio!’ KV 418
Violin Concerto no.5 in A major, KV 219
‘Nehmt meinen Dank, ihr holden Gönner!’ KV 383
Symphony no.36 in C major, KV 425, ‘Linz’

Fflur Wyn (soprano)
Thomas Gould (violin)
Aurora Orchestra
Nicholas Collon (conductor)

Whether Shakespearean or pertaining to the Epiphany itself, Mozart on Twelfth Night seems equally apt. Some grumbled about over-exposure in 2006. There can, however, be no such thing as over-exposure for Mozart, unless – and this is a big ‘unless’ – the performances should fall short of the mark, as most, sadly, do. No conductor, then, could have been more suited to the task than that great Mozartian, Sir Colin Davis, scheduled to conduct this early instalment in Kings Place’s year-long ‘Mozart Unwrapped’ season. Unfortunately, Sir Colin fell ill, being replaced at short notice by the Aurora Orchestra’s founder and Principal Conductor, Nicholas Collon. His conducting of Gluck’s Alceste for the Chelsea Opera Group augured well, but Mozart presents a stiffer challenge even than his much-misunderstood operatic predecessor and contemporary.

Collon, creditably, proved his own man. There was relatively little to his interpretations suggestive of Sir Colin’s way with Mozart. The opening overture to La clemenza di Tito was brisker than Davis would be likely to have taken it, but not inflexible; indeed, there were occasional tempo variations that perhaps had more in common with a performance by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, though thankfully not so many. Moreover, the woodwind of the Aurora Orchestra, here and elsewhere, proved notably sparkling. (If, however, we must have Radio 3 presenters 'presenting' in the concert hall, also a characteristic of last year's Late-Night Proms, might someone at the BBC check facts and foreign-language pronunciation? Most glaring on this occasion were the claim that Leopold II was crowned 'Emperor', not King, of Bohemia, and the inaudible 'e' to 'Aloysia Lange'.)

Collon also proved an attentive and lively ‘accompanist’ in the two arias. The orchestra shone again in both, Thomas Barber’s obbligato oboe proving the crowning though far from the only glory of ‘Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio!’ Pizzicato strings also delighted. ‘Nehmt meinen Dank, ihr holden Gönner!’ emerged on the fast side, but convincingly so, since Collon always permitted the music to breathe. The Aurora Orchestra’s woodwind again clearly enjoyed their spell in the Mozartian sun. Less impressive, I am afraid, was the soprano soloist, Fflur Wyn. Her diction was good, especially in the German aria, but the persistently tremulant quality to her tone production was hard to take, even in relatively short doses, especially when married to an all-too-bright chirpiness.

The evening’s other soloist, violinist Thomas Gould (also leader of the Aurora Orchestra) was far more impressive. Silvery, yet sweet-toned, his delivery of the solo line beguiled from the first entry, a very few intonational slips in the first movement notwithstanding. Crucially, he ensured, in a notably unhurried account, that ‘lively’ was not taken, fallaciously, to be interchangeable with ‘hard-driven’. Orchestral articulation in the opening bars of the slow movement was a little studied; Davis would doubtless have imparted a greater sense of overall line. Nevertheless, once soloist and orchestra sang together, a cantabile line was very much to be heard. Moreover, the minor-mode passages hinted at, yet never exaggerated, a truly Mozartian note of ineffable sadness. The finale opened graciously, eschewing the all-too-common easy route of ‘effects’, whilst imparting a nice lilt to the Scotch snaps in solo and orchestra. The Turkish music was characterful but never grotesque; indeed, it was here that Collon really seemed to come into his own, conveying a winningly operatic tendency. A concerto such as this is better than it can ever be played, far more difficult than any crowd-pleasing empty virtuosity; these players emerged most creditably in what was overall the best performance of the evening.

The final work on the programme was the Linz Symphony. One would be very likely to hear more mannered performances today, but Collon’s account was not entirely free of such tendencies, perhaps especially during the first movement. ‘Rhetoric’ is often pointed to by members of the ‘authenticke’ brigade as attempted justification for an inability to phrase; such was not the case here. Nevertheless, a greater sense of overall line would often have been welcome, likewise greater avoidance of a sense of the four-square, bar-lines sometimes proving a little too audible. (Consider the deceptive, that is to say hard-won, lyrical ease displayed by conductors such as Davis, Böhm, Bernstein, or indeed Klemperer.) There was often, though by no means always, a harshness to be heard that has little, or rather no, place in Mozart. Trumpets and drums in C major can sing more readily than this. There was also an unwelcome edge at times to the violin sound. Predictably perhaps, the slow movement did not linger, but the drawbacks of its predecessor were largely banished in favour of a beguiling sense of the outdoor serenade. There was also a straightforwardness to the path pursued, to which one could readily imagine Sir Colin – or Klemperer – responding, that path being audibly founded upon a sure sense of Mozart’s harmonic progression. Repeats made this a lengthy traversal, but here at least, there are far worse things to endure than ‘heavenly lengths’; indeed Schubert, perhaps even Bruckner, came to mind on occasion. A vigorous minuet was followed – a pity, this – by a somewhat fussy trio, but simplicity is an extraordinarily difficult thing to achieve. Vigour returned in the finale, in a largely convincing account that proved alive yet also possessed of necessary breadth. It sounded more like a true finale than often hears in more throwaway performances. Taking the second repeat seemed a mistake, however, since it very much came across as yet another repeat. Nevertheless, if wanting to hear Mozart’s music one more time be a failing, it is perfectly understandable.