Sunday 4 December 2011

Mozart Unwrapped (9) - Cooper/ASMF/Janiczek, 3 January 2011

Hall One, Kings Place

Symphony no.51 in D major, KV 121/196
Concertone for two violins in C major, KV 190
Piano Concerto no.9 in E-flat major, KV 271
Symphony no.21 in A major, KV 134

Imogen Cooper (piano)
Alexander Janiczek (violin/director)
Martin Burgess (violin)
Academy of St Martin in the Fields

This, the ninth of the ‘Mozart Unwrapped’ concerts I have heard, will be the last, although there remain a few still to be heard in December, culminating in two performances of the Requiem from the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. There was much to enjoy, especially with respect to Imogen Cooper’s fine account of the solo part to the ninth piano concerto, though also from the playing of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. However, there were also a few tensions between the performance style of the ASMF and that of Alexander Janiczek as violinist-director. In a nutshell, one had the impression that Janiczek might have been happier directing a ‘period’ ensemble, and that such an ensemble would have been happier than the ASMF to be directed by him.

The symphony ‘no.51’ – the overture to La finta giardiniera plus finale – received a lively reading, if a touch hard-driven. It was well-articulated – clearly a strength of Janiczek’s direction – whilst sometimes verging upon the abrasive, that quality clearly emanating more from director than orchestra. At least vibrato was not entirely eschewed. That said, the second movement, the ‘Andantino grazioso’, was ideally paced: a pleasant surprise indeed. The finale teemed with life, albeit life rather fierce at times. I was put in mind of Stravinsky’s comment having heard Sir Georg Solti conduct what one assumes to have been a typically turbo-charged, unyielding account of The Marriage of Figaro: Mozart is poorer than this.

For the Concertone, Janiczek was joined as soloist by Martin Burgess, though oboist David Theodore’s exquisite solos threatened to eclipse both violinists. I simply wished that Janiczek would calm down a little – and from time to time longed for a larger complement of strings. (The ASMF was truly pocket-sized for this concert: As even an acoustical ignoramus such as I knows, eight first violins do not sound twice as loud as four, but they certainly enable smoother performance, even in a small hall.) The finale came off better than the first two movements, its vivacity better suited to the bright-toned approach.

The orchestral contribution to KV 271 possessed many of the lively virtues of the first-half performances, if also some of the drawbacks. Cooper’s contribution for the most part more than compensated for the latter. Exquisitely shaded, yet not afraid to sound bigger-boned when required, it was a Mozart performance more in the mould of Daniel Barenboim than Cooper’s mentor, Alfred Brendel (whose recording with the ASMF and Sir Neville Marriner remains highly recommended). Indeed, more than once in the first movement, I found myself thinking that Otto Klemperer would have approved. Again, there were times when the strings sounded a little undernourished, but that was not too much of a problem until the slow movement, which also suffered from astringent rather than merely muted violin tone. (I have never heard the ASMF sound like that, whether under Marriner, Murray Perahia, Iona Brown, or anyone else.) Such wiriness was quite at odds with the beautifully moulded and subtly variegated performance at the keyboard; solo ornamentation was tastefully handled. But this was deeply felt Mozart from Cooper – no Dresden china here – and never more so than in the cadenza. The finale proved exciting, yet not inappropriately so. There was, rather, to be heard a rollicking relish in Mozart’s melodic and harmonic invention, even though there were times when the orchestra sounded unduly fierce. The interpolated minuet, however, emerged as something truly to treasure, a veritable garden of delights.

It was, perhaps, slightly odd to follow Brendel’s ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ with the Symphony no.21, but opportunities to hear early Mozart are infrequent and therefore to be welcomed. This performance proved something of a tale of two halves, the first two movements happier than the final two. Placing the opening movement on the cusp of the Baroque and Classical brought a welcome sense of CPE Bach’s sensibility to proceedings, and Janiczek’s tempo was well judged. Structure, including Mozart’s playing with our expectations, was properly conveyed. The slow movement was intelligently shaped and nicely shaded, though again I could not help but wish that the director would calm down somewhat. Dramatic flair was nevertheless imparted to the section in the minor mode. It was a pity, then, to encounter a minuet and trio in relatively aggressive mode, as if haunted by the spectre of Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Indeed, there were times when the trio threatened to shade into the world of Bartók. The finale, whatever the brilliance of its execution, failed to smile. I could not help but long for the likes of Karl Böhm.