Sunday 17 January 2016

Aurora/Butt - JC Bach, Mozart, CPE Bach, and JS Bach, 16 January 2016

Hall One, Kings Place

JC Bach – Symphony no.6 in G minor, op.6 no.6
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.1 in F major, KV 37
CPE Bach – Symphony in D major, Wq 183/1 (H663)
JS Bach – Brandenburg Concerto no.1 in F major, BWV 1046
Mozart – Adagio and Fugue in C minor, KV 546
JS Bach – Brandenburg Concerto no.3 in G major, BWV 1048

Aurora Orchestra
John Butt (harpsichord/director)

With this very fine concert, the Aurora Orchestra launched a five-year series, in which all of Mozart’s piano concertos will be performed. I recall Pierre Boulez – a Mozartian to be reckoned with, Don Giovanni being one of the three operas he said he wished he had conducted, yet had not – suggesting the concertos as a linking theme for an orchestra within a season, and he had long previously begun a recorded version of that with his Domaine musical orchestra and Yvonne Loriod, never, alas, proceeding further than the fourth. (Do seek out the recording of the first four!) It is, one would have thought, quite an obvious idea, and yet has rarely been pursued. Increasingly, audiences – or at least the most reactionary elements within them, which, for some reason, more often than not prove triumphant – seem to prefer second- or third-rate scores which simply use large orchestras and sound rather like film music; perhaps they always did. This, then, is an undertaking to be applauded in principle; on the basis of this first instalment, it is certainly to be applauded in practice too. The orchestra thinks this might be the first time a single orchestra has done such a thing in a single venue; I know of no predecessor and should be interested to hear if there has been one.

For this concert, John Butt joined the orchestra as harpsichord soloist and director. I hope it will not be the last such occasion, for the results made for a delightful and genuinely thought-provoking concert. The title he came up with was ‘Bach is the father, we are the children!’ It is, of course, a celebrated saying of Mozart’s, only referring to Emanuel rather than Sebastian. And so, the first piano concerto was framed by works from JC Bach, arguably the greatest compositional influence upon the boy – and not only the boy – Mozart, and his elder brother, Emanuel. That tragic, ultra-Bachian utterance, the C minor Adagio and Fugue, formed the centrepiece of the second half, framed by two of the Brandenburg Concertos: not, then, imputing direct influence, although there was certainly plenty of that during the 1780s from other works by JS Bach, but rather setting up a pleasing dialectical twist in which Mozart at some what take to be his most severe – I can hear why, but I am not entirely in agreement – with Bach at his sunniest, contrapuntal learning fundamental to both, yet undeniably more overt in Mozart’s case.

Johann Christian Bach, the ‘London Bach’, is buried just a few minutes’ walk away from Kings Place, in the churchyard of St Pancras, in a genuine pauper’s grave. Here he sprang instantly back to life, enriched by an excellent performance. The G minor Symphony, op.6 no.6 (not just op.6, as the programme had it), opened in alert, vigorous fashion, its first movement vividly alert to the composer’s rhetorical flourishes, without those substituting for phrasing, let alone a longer line. (That happens far too often in ‘period’ performances of eighteenth-century music: think of the often preposterous distortions of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, et al.) Sometimes, unreconstructed modernist that I am, I might have preferred more vibrato from the strings, but that was only a matter of degree, and is merely a personal observation. Confounding of preconceived ideas was a welcome aspect, for JC Bach is often thought of as amiable, ‘pre-Classical’, and so on; a work in which all three movements are in the minor mode, and a performance pursued with such vigour did the trick nicely. One heard, moreover, the importance of woodwind even in a string-based work: clearly prophetic for Mozart. The slow movement was also rhetorical in the best sense, poised between recitative and aria. This is highly inventive music, and so it sounded. The finale sounded, again, quite different in character, perhaps a little more ‘Baroque’ at its opening, yet flowering into something arguably more ‘Classical’ thereafter, with many points of contact with Mozart as symphonist in the 1770s. An astonishingly alert performance from the Aurora Orchestra, directed by Butt with great wisdom, lightly worn, concluded with a perfectly-judged throwaway ending.

The First Piano Concerto – perhaps we should refer to it here as a Keyboard Concerto, but who cares? – was performed on a French harpsichord rather than a German instrument; Butt assured us that the sound was very close in any case. It was for me a splendid opportunity to hear for the first time ‘in the flesh’ a work I have known for many years, since first, as an undergraduate, acquiring Daniel Barenboim’s recording of the complete concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra. (It is still, to my mind, the greatest ‘set’; although in a number of works, certainly not all of them, I might favour Barenboim’s later Berlin readings, he never re-recorded the very earliest works.) The orchestral sound was very different (leaving aside, of course, the solo instrument and its use as a continuo instrument). The Aurora players, unsurprisingly, sounded a little ‘earlier’, although in no way aggressively so, less sustained, perhaps less poignant, but full of rhetorical life. Interestingly, the harpsichord sometimes sounded more prominent as soloist than Barenboim’s piano, the orchestra tending, at least some of the time, to play itself down during solo passages. Again, the woodwind, connecting with the ‘London’ Bach performance, seemed prophetic of the later Mozart. Whilst the outer movements are Mozart’s reworkings of popular sonata movements by other composers – HF Raupach and Leontzi Honauer – it is now thought by some scholars that the slow movement is entirely Mozart’s own. (I might add: presumably with the help of a correction or two by Leopold.) Perhaps what most interested me upon hearing it again, after quite a few years, was that much of it, perhaps excepting the shift to the minor mode, sounded no more ‘characteristic’ – nor, for that matter, no less ‘characteristic’ – than its bedfellows; not that it was not delightful, of course. It was taken quite swiftly, largely to good effect: arguably still more so when one imagined the eleven-year-old himself performing it at the keyboard. The finale’s wonderful catchiness was captured to great effect. Above all, the joy of these fine musicians shone through. Butt’s own cadenza was harmonically quite adventurous, as if to signal the beginning of a tonal journey Mozart would pursue throughout this series of works.

CPE Bach’s D major Symphony, Wq 183/1, announced its show-stopping originality at the very outset.  The arresting, even bizarre, nature of the opening to the first movement – not just the tension of those repeated notes, but the undeniably peculiar tessitura – was swiftly contrasted, one might almost say neurotically, with woodwind balm, and so it would continue: not just throughout the movement, but throughout the symphony as a whole. The shifts of mood were brilliantly conceived and, so it seemed, relished. And somehow – something often missing in performances of these works – there seemed a degree of logic to the strange course followed. The increasing importance of the woodwind, superbly played, seemed again to point to Mozart, whilst also marking out Emanuel Bach as having a closer kinship to ‘French’ orchestral writing than many might suspect. Melodic grace in the slow movement was underpinned, paradoxically and uncomfortably, by unease beneath. If that sounds a little weird, the weirdness is intentional. A vivacious account of the finale, albeit with strange, compelling interruptions rounded off a fine performance.

The First Brandenburg Concerto received a well-nigh ideal performance, small forces suited to the small hall. (Not that I shall ever forsake Klemperer – nor, for that matter, the Busch Chamber Players.) The tempo of the first movement, and pretty much everything about it, simply sounded ‘right’. Balances and phrasing were such as to allow Bach’s miraculous balance of counterpoint and harmony to do its work, belying the complexity at work in the background. The Aurora players’ cultivation was seemingly matched by their joy in Bach’s invention. What beguiling oboe playing opened the second movement, answered in turn by violin, bassoon, and so on! Again, there was an ineffable ‘rightness’ to what we heard. The following Allegro went with an insouciant swing, although what learning lies behind it! It may be clichéd to say so, but ‘courtly’ was the first word that sprang to mind during the Menuet. And yes, swing persisted, a ‘courtly swing’. The first Trio was equally delightful, pure chamber music. Understated elegance characterised much of the Polacca, whilst the second Trio proved straightforwardly life-affirming. This was a performance that reminded me of why I first fell in love with these works, in the recordings by the ECO and Philip Ledger.

It was in Mozart’s C minor Adagio and Fugue – a favourite, far from incidentally, of Boulez – that I felt myself a little out of sympathy with the performing decisions: not that they were unjustifiable, and indeed in terms of that dialectical twist I mentioned earlier, they had their own justification. It was only here really that I felt the lack of a longer, more vocal line, ‘rhetoric’ perhaps coming too much to the foreground. Balanced against that, the constructivism of Mozart’s writing was laudably clear. It was very well played; I simply favour a more Schoenbergian reading of this complex, fascinating work.

The Third Brandenburg Concerto completed the programme. Its first movement was taken at a fast tempo, but there was still plenty of space for the music to breathe, to live. Again, sheer joy and musical delight pervaded the performance. In lieu of a small movement, Butt and Thomas Gould (the orchestra’s leader) performed with elegance a movement from the G major Violin Sonata, BWV 1019, ending on the right cadence. There was splendid swagger to the finale, offering what seemed to be certainty in accomplishment – perhaps, and if so, quite rightly, in performance as well as in the work itself.

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 7.30 p.m., and available on iPlayer for thirty days thereafter.