Thursday, 15 September 2011

Mozart Unwrapped (6): ASMF wind music, 14 September 2011

Hall One, Kings Place

Overture: Der Schauspieldirektor, KV 486 (arr. Graham Sheen)
Divertimento no.1 in B-flat major, KV Anh. 229/KV 439b/1
Divertimento no.13 in F major, KV 253
Serenade no.10 in B-flat major, KV 361/370a, ‘Gran Partita’

Academy of St Martin in the Fields

Some good Mozart, followed by some great Mozart. I have no problem whatsoever with the former; indeed, the more I know the latter, the more I appreciate the former, the slightest felicities sparking a joy of recognition that as a mere beginner would doubtless have eluded me. To treat second-rank Mozart as unworthy of attention is an ignorant snobbery to be deplored infinitely more than any initial naïveté that might treat all Mozart’s music as if it were the same. Moreover, this programme of music for wind (plus double bass in the Gran Partita) reminded us that the soloists of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, here without conductor, remain a force to be reckoned with.

First came bassoonist Graham Sheen’s transcription (for two oboes, two clarinets, two horns, and two bassoons) of the overture to Der Schauspieldirektor. The music transferred effortlessly to the new medium, well assisted by a bubbly performance, though it lacked of course the weight that a great orchestral performance from the likes of the LSO or the VPO (under Sir Colin Davis and Sir John Pritchard, respectively) can bring to this woefully underrated score. Instead, fittingly for the programme, we heard the music sound more as a miniature divertimento, with solistic brilliance as compensation, even to the extent of a little clarinet ornamentation at the end.

Next came the first of the five divertimenti for three basset horns. The opening Allegro sounded suave yet not superficial, clean yet not clinical. It seemed as though there was undue compensation for the lack of bite at the very opening of the second movement minuet, but there was much to enjoy in the fascinating details revealed from this chip from the master’s workbench. The slow movement emerged in turn poised and sinuous, whilst its successor minuet and trio enjoyed a good sense of swing. Finally, the rondo boasted a Haydnesque sense of rhythm and fun, though some phrases sang as only Mozart’s can. Here, as elsewhere, there was much to admire in the ASMF players’ dexterity.

KV 253, for two oboes, two horns, and two bassoons, received a fine performance. The first movement’s theme was properly leisurely, the music permitted to breathe, detail permitted to emerge. Much the same could be said of the ensuing variations, the second particularly delightful in its conversational tone, the horns quite magical. The tempo for the slow, fifth variation was just right, well sustained, neither dragging nor rushed. I especially enjoyed the oboe-led trio to the second movement, whilst the finale was simply a joy: not abandoned, but civilised.

The second half was devoted entirely to the great B-flat major Serenade, KV 361/370a. One immediately registered the fuller sound and the right degree of breadth in the first movement’s Largo introduction: I was put in mind of the introduction to the magnificent B-flat major violin sonata, KV 454. The Allegro was taken at quite a lick, but lovably so, so that one could still luxuriate in Mozart’s extraordinary harmonies. If it were not for Furtwängler’s incomparable Vienna Philharmonic recording, there would probably have been nothing to miss at all, but such a comparison is more than usually odious, not least since this was a ‘chamber’ rather than ‘conducted’ performance. The double bass (Lynda Houghton) made its presence felt in the right way, as if it were a true continuo part. Occasional fierceness detracted somewhat, but this remained a superior performance. The second movement flowed, without being rushed, its first trio quartet (!) especially gorgeous. As for the great Adagio: well, I might have wished for Furtwängler’s tempo, but this more ‘flowing’ – to employ the modern near-euphemism – version worked too, the dialogues between Christopher Cowie’s oboe and Timothy Lines’s clarinet exquisite indeed. Better, then, to hear a movement one wished had extended over a little more time, than for it to outstay its welcome. The ensuing minuet smiled and danced. Mozart’s rusticity, unlike Haydn’s, is always secondary, arguably tertiary, but the second trio nevertheless exuded easy charm (which is not at all an easy task for the performers). The Romanza was exquisite, sounding as a true Adagio, and sustained as such, its Allegretto section acquiring considerable urgency without turning breathless. ‘Delightful’, even ‘life-enhancing’, would seem an apt description for the theme and variations, the delight rising upwards from the double bass line to the truly harmonious Harmoniemusik. Cowie’s oboe solo in the slow variation transported one at least as far as the gates of Elysium. After that, the finale had something of a deflationary effect. Molto allegro is an extremely difficult tempo to bring off in Mozart: think of the finale to the great G minor symphony, KV 550. This at times felt a little too boisterous, brusque even, especially from the clarinets, but the performance as a whole remained one to treasure.