Tag Archives: Mozart

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

In these lean times, when orchestral forces are pared to spartan COVID-friendly levels, it says a lot of a conductor when he can glean such richness of string tone as Mark Wigglesworth did from the BBC SSO in this latest Radio 3 live broadcast.

And it came with a dash of style, particularly in the two Classical symphonies that bookended the programme: Haydn’s spirited Symphony No 1 (yes, he had to start somewhere); and Mozart’s Symphony No 40 (the second of his final three symphonies, not that he envisaged them as such).

The instant joie-de-vivre of the Haydn, a natural effusion of craftsmanship and ingenuity integrating prevalent Mannheim symphonic traits with newfound Austrian zest, produced a stimulating opener: nothing trenchant or intellectually taxing, just a no-nonsense, honest appreciation of the music’s charm and integrity. As with the later Mozart, there seemed a conscious limitation on string vibrato, which gave this performance a refreshingly raw, period countenance. 

If there’s anything Haydnesque about Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1, it’s the Soviet composer’s preoccupation with the cellular motif. Identified immediately by its brusque four-note monogram, Shostakovich powers his concerto with a single-minded insistence that borders on violence, which is why soloist Steven Isserlis refuses to play it on his Stradivarius. “For this, you need an instrument that doesn’t mind being hit,” he revealed in his pre-performance interview.

Despite the warning, Isserlis was careful not to go ballistic. Yes, there was forthright assertiveness and fiery detachment in his opening gambit, but this was not an exercise in basic extremes. Instead, there was a real sense of journey, the opening movement tempered with gnawing undertones, the Moderato equally cautious of overstatement, the cadenza shifting momentously from ruminative soliloquy to fiery springboard unleashing the rumbustious peasantry of the relentless finale. 

Fine horn playing, too, from SSO principal Alberto Menendez Escribano, and the lighter addition of a Kabalevsky dance (No 3 of 5 Studies for solo cello), played as an encore by Isserlis and dedicate to his friend, Berlin Philharmonic cellist Wolfgang Boettcher, who died last week.

Post interval, Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante defunte removed any lingering shockwaves from the Shostakovich, its wafting melodies and summer-scented harmonies, plus a sumptuous Ravel orchestration to die for, paving the way for the genius of Mozart.

This may have been 56-year-old Wigglesworth’s first time conducting the G minor symphony, but the clarity and cogency of his interpretation suggest the time was ripe. There was a meaty energy to this performance, essential in addressing the robust counterpoint of the finale, but never at the expense of capturing textural detail. It wasn’t the tightest playing of the evening, the occasional hint of rushed freneticism rocking an otherwise steady ship. But the overall encapsulation of Mozart’s heavier moods, especially that deliciously emotive chain of suspensions at the heart of the Andante, was enough to dispel any minor quibbles.
Ken Walton

Listen to this concert on BBC Sounds

BBC SSO / Samuel

City Halls, Glasgow

It is likely that there were few arts organisations whose immediate response to COVID-19 was to make a SWOT analysis to inform their planning, but it has nonetheless become commonplace to point out some benefits to be appreciated as a result of the restrictions made necessary by the pandemic.

With social distancing limiting the size of musical ensembles and travel prohibition making the scheduled appearances of guest soloists and conductors impossible, there has been a focus on the wealth of international and indigenous talent that is resident in Scotland. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra in particular has been able to let a wider audience see its players in many different chamber music combinations.

This programme from the BBC Scottish was in some respect much more like a programme that the SCO might have undertaken pre-pandemic, with a previous or current leader of the orchestra directing from the violin. But it is also true that even the much larger RSNO has ventured down that road recently, tackling Beethoven symphonies without a conductor and emerging with credit from the exercise.

Battling through the health emergency to meet its commitments, with changes of conductors and soloists, this was perhaps the first time the SSO used the situation to highlight the talent it has within its ranks, and what a buoyant uplifting experience it was.

It is not as if we did not know how good the orchestra’s wind principals are. Stella McCracken (oboe), Yann Ghiro (clarinet), Julian Roberts (bassoon) and even newer member Alberto Menendez Escribano (horn) have all been in the ranks for some years, distinguishing concerts with their soloing.

That quartet had the spotlight for Mozart’s other Paris Sinfonia Concertante, from the year before the one for violin and viola that he probably played himself. Although designated a Kochel catalogue number, it is still not entirely accepted as being by him, in the absence of an autographed score.

If someone else did write it, they have surely been denied credit for a lovely piece of work, which gives all four of the wind instruments a platform, and the interweaving lines of the SSO players were beautifully captured in this broadcast.

At the heart of many an SSO concert, however, is its distinctive string sound, and with leader Laura Samuel directing from the concert-master’s seat, this programme was really a celebration of that strength. If the Mozart is not strongest in that department – in some respects the root of doubts about the score’s authenticity – it was bracketed by Czech works that more than compensated.

Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings was hugely important for the composer, an early triumph on his rocky road to a professional career, and there is ebullience in every bar. That was what came across in this performance, liberated from any directorial interpretation that may have come from the podium. The tempo was not too strict to allow the music to flow naturally, with some lovely languid moments in the rich string sound.

The concert began with a briefer, less familiar, but also beautifully scored piece by Dvorak’s son-in-law Josef Suk, Meditation on an old Czech hymn “St Wenceslas”. Originally written for the Bohemian String Quartet, of which Suk was a member, it was a riposte to the occupying Austrians’ requirement that their national anthem be played at all concerts. Its political message may be obscured by distance and time, but the powerful community feeling it expresses was transmitted to an audience starved of the communal enjoyment of live music by the eloquence of the SSO strings.
Keith Bruce

SCO / Whelan / Bray

Perth Concert Hall

It’s easy to see why Guadeloupe-born composer Joseph Boulogne, known also as Chevalier de Saint-George once he had inherited his plantation-owning father’s title, was so popular in his day, even more so in certain circles than the slightly younger Mozart. The overture to his one surviving opera, L’Amant Anonyme, is to 18th century Classicism what fine porcelain is to ceramics: delicate, translucent and well-proportioned.

It’s the opener in a chic Mozart-centric programme filmed in Perth Concert Hall by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and conducted by former SCO principal bassoonist Peter Whelan, the common link between Boulogne and Mozart being that they briefly shared lodgings in Paris.  

Cast in three short sections, there is more than symphonic pretence to this overture, existing successfully on its own as a concert piece. Whelan, directing from the harpsichord, engages at once with its elegant precision and cool-headed elan. The opening section is the epitome of finesse and le bon goût. But it’s in the central slower section where Whelan’s unassuming mastery comes to the fore, his responsive control of the textures drawing the ear to what matters, gently suppressing what doesn’t. Boulogne was as masterful a swordsman as a composer, we are told, which echoes true in the artful cut and thrust of the overture’s dizzy conclusion.

Mozart was well-known for his orchestral updates of Handel, notably the “Mozart version” of Messiah. But he also turned his hand to Handel’s pastoral opera Acis and Galatea, the overture of which throws an unlikely brace of clarinets into the limelight. 

It’s to Maximiliano Martin’s and William Stafford’s enormous credit that they found the exactness and versatility necessary to headline this vivacious performance with such stylistic conviction. That the overture ends on an imperfect cadence – there is, by definition, more to come – presents a curious, though some might argue theatrical, hiatus. 

Martin also plays a key role in the aria “Parti, parto ma tu ben mio” from Mozart’s late opera La clemenza di Tito, duetting mellifluously with the golden mezzo soprano of Katie Bray. Hers is a voice that combines the heightened thrills of the soprano with the soulful pungency of the lower tessitura. And where this impassioned aria – Sesto’s blind, reckless love overruling common sense – displays Bray’s range of emotional heat, what follows, the Laudamus Te from Mozart’s Mass in C minor, is a brilliant showpiece for an exceptional singer.   

Mozart’s Linz Symphony is, to some extent, a representation of his entire personality. Whelan takes every opportunity to demonstrate that, from the majestic poise of the opening movement, through the lyrical charm of the Andante and the simple elegance of the Menuetto to the gleeful, easeful finality of the closing Presto. No need for over-prescriptive hand gestures; the sheer joy communicated by Whelan’s facial expressions convey all that’s required to secure a vintage SCO performance. Classy to the last.
Ken Walton

Available to view via www.sco.org.uk

Scottish Opera / Così fan tutte

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

How best to avoid the pitfalls of Mozart’s Così fan tutte? It’s an opera that can appear absurdly glib at face value – two women tricked by their betrothed into an unlikely switch of allegiance when the latter fake their absence and reappear as tempters in disguise, all just to teach the girls a lesson. Farce by any other name.

Or there’s the concept approach, not least those attempts by many 19th century productions to corrupt the storyline and neuter the misogyny by making the girls secretly aware of the ruse, stringing their fellas along just to teach them a lesson. 

Either way, and somewhere in between, the trick is to be guided by Mozart’s music. Look no further than the wistful charm of the Act 1 trio, “Soave sia il vento”, one of opera’s most transformative, humanising moments. Miscalculate moments like that and the magic is gone. 

It’s to director Roxana Haines’ credit that her new staging of Così for Scottish Opera, film directed by Jonathan Haswell, avoids usurping the music’s charm. Her modernising concept is to depict these unlikely shenanigans as the filming of a reality TV game show. Don Alfonso is the conceited host whose concerns for the “contestants’” wellbeing are way secondary to his precious screen image.

A minimally adorned Theatre Royal stage is the perfect setting, multiple shooting angles facilitating the juxtaposition between general action and to-camera moments. If there’s an inkling that this could so easily lead to over-trivialisation, the concept’s one weakness – its ultimate insignificance – perversely becomes its strength. You can take it or leave it.

So it’s left to the cast to inject the all-consuming lifeblood, and this young sextet – mostly current or former Scottish Opera Emerging Artists – set about their task with invigorating elan. The two toyed-with couples are as well-matched in ensemble as they are distinctive in character. 

Shengzhi Ren’s searingly passionate Ferrando, tiring momentarily but quickly recovering in Act 2, finds willing partnership in baritone Arthur Bruce’s more laddish, vocally composed Guglielmo. Where Margo Arsane’s Dorabella is deliciously sweet and flighty, Charlie Drummond brings composed femininity to her glowing portrayal of Fiordiligi. 

As chief manipulator, Michael Mofidian’s Don Alfonso is colourful and frenetic. Together with Catriona Hewitson’s bubbling versatility as Despina, they are the most obvious manifestations of the game show idea. The chorus, spread around the circle balcony for obvious Covid reasons, offers hints of an audience presence, but various visual cameos arising from that are a little too contrived to work convincingly.

No lack of conviction from Stuart Stratford and his Scottish Opera Orchestra, caged in at the rear of the  stage – similarities, perhaps, to the penned band in that other TV favourite, Strictly – and offering a spirited Mozart performance that encompasses the extremes of frivolity, passion and tenderness implicit in this all-embracing score.
Ken Walton

Available to view on www.scottishopera.org.uk

SCO: Adams/Mozart

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

There have been some delightful threads to follow through the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s digital chamber music concerts, with its subtly changing cast of musicians, uniformly excellent sound mixing and evolving style of careful visual presentation.

The modern element of this programme is a selection of three of the 12 movements of John’s Book of Alleged Dances, a Kronos Quartet commission from John Adams that dates from 1994. In its original version, it references the work of John Cage in the use of a prepared piano rhythmic backing track, which proved a bit of a challenge for even the technologically-adept American group for whose individual members particular passages were specifically written.

This SCO quartet – Stephanie Gonley, Marcus Barcham Stevens, Felix Tanner, and Donald Gillan – neatly side-steps that problem by playing only movements 5, 3 and 8, none of which requires the rhythm track. They are each quintessential Adams though, particularly the first, and by far the longest, “Pavane: She’s So Fine”. It both celebrates and subverts an earlier form and the formal roles of the members of a string quartet. Gillan deserves particular praise for his playing of the very high cello part, written to showcase the Kronos’s Joan Jeanrenaud.

The briefer joys of “Toot Nipple” and “Stubble Crotchet” – classic Adams titles – displays his signature rhythmic style, the latter an encapsulation of his practice in miniature that can’t help but bring a smile. Dancing to any of this would surely be a challenge, but one that choreographers have risen to since the work was composed.

More specific to the narrative of this season is the sextet that follows, Mozart’s Grande Sestetto Concertante. With Gonley again leading, Philip Higham replacing Gillan, and violist Brian Schiele and bassist Nikita Naumov joining the group, the piece often sounds very little like Mozart. That  was also true of the Mozart Adagio and Fugue, which was included in the Queen’s Hall concert of November 12 (and still available to view until Saturday December 12), although that work consciously looked backwards. The more obvious reason this time around is that Mozart didn’t actually write it. The score is an arrangement of his Sinfonia Concertante, published almost 30 years later and the work of an unknown hand.

Cast your mind back to the days of audiences in concert halls, and the original work was in the last programme played by the SCO in March, with Nicola Benedetti and Lawrence Power as the soloists. If it sounded like scaled-up chamber music then, this might have been expected to be a back-to-basics exercise, but the arranger has had no particular urge to employ Mozartian building blocks.

More influenced by Beethoven, the music shares the solo lines around the members of the group, with Higham and Naumov providing the propulsion in the Presto finale. The opening movement loses none of its Maestoso in this reduced orchestration, and the moving central Andante seems to acquire a more Mediterranean feel in its flow, but is no less moving.

sco.org.uk, available to Sunday January 3 2021

Keith Bruce

Image: The SCO’s Philip Higham & Nikita Naumov play Mozart

RSNO / Widmann

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

He’s a conductor, a composer and a virtuoso clarinettist, so Jörg Widmann came as the complete package to an RSNO digital programme that combined Mozart’s much-loved Clarinet Concerto, Mendelssohn’s robust Reformation Symphony and Widmann’s own capricious Fantasie for solo clarinet.

It also meant that Widmann’s charismatic personality fed through every morsel of this filmed concert, not least that side of him – obvious from his affable pre-performance chat – that is undogmatic, free-spirited and spontaneously musical. If that meant pushing the letter of the score to some extremes in the Mozart and Mendelssohn, eschewing absolute adherence to tempi in favour of greater expressive freedom, it was done with such self-belief that it invariably triumphed.

What that required, in the Mozart, was an RSNO capable of engineering its own coordinated support, as Widmann’s direction was largely gestural and minimal. For the most part, the response was intuitive and beautifully symbiotic, the band instantly reactive to the teasing elasticity which he exercised in many of the work’s unforgettable themes.

Nor was it surprising to witness the smiling Mozartian brio of Widmann’s precision playing, warmed by the gritty tonal personality of his instrument, echoed in an orchestral ensemble fully signed up to his articulate, clear-minded vision. Where ensemble glitches occurred they were minor, the uppermost strings occasionally appearing thin and scurrying, but these were incidental in a thoroughly engaging, thought-provoking performance.

Widmann had the stage to himself in his own Fantasie, a madcap virtuoso concert piece conceived as a one-man musical reimagining of Commedia dell’Arte. Multiple “characters” interact with surreal, often cartoon-like wit, the manic agility of the clarinet writing – even a manufactured 4-part chord – central to its savage cut and thrust. A mesmerising performance.

Nothing quite brings you back down to earth like a Mendelssohn symphony, especially the “Reformation”, written in 1830 to celebrate the tercentenary of the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, complete with the gravitational “mighty fortress” presence of Martin Luther’s chorale tune ”Ein feste Burg” as the mainstay of its final movement.

As with the Mozart, but now solely conducting the orchestra, Widmann’s approach was hungry and personal. That same resistance to rigidity opened up intriguing expressive possibilities: slow, punctuating breaths that gave added weight to new phrases; a persuasive energy that fuelled the unstinting momentum; shudders in tempo that sailed close to the wind in the Andante, but never so much as to knock it off course; and solid, brazen tuttis that ripened fully in the final moments.
www.rsno.org.uk
Ken Walton

Image: Jörg Widmann

SCO/ Mozart & Mendelssohn

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

It may come under the banner of chamber music, but a coupling of Mozart’s probing G minor String Quintet K516 and Mendelssohn’s youthfully exuberant Octet represents something altogether more massive in physical stature and emotional heft. So it’s hardly surprising that this latest programme in the SCO’s digital Chamber Music Series proved not only one of the lengthiest, but also the most exhaustive and exhilarating to date. 

In the first of these, Mozart takes us through the wringer with music that strives to reconcile troublesome thoughts, that expresses its journey through a fragmentary healing process and a final shift to the major key that is as much about transformative release as triumphant consummation.
 
And this performance, led compellingly and demonstratively by lead violinist Maria Wloszczowska, knew exactly where it was taking us and how it would get there. The sighing phrases of the opening Allegro, articulated with raw vibrato-less poignancy, tugged gnawingly at the heartstrings. With the Menuetto came a deeper agitation before the muted Adagio, no less troubled, but offering rays of hope as it edged towards the transformative discourse of the closing Allegro.

If the meaty ensemble mix in the Mozart was a thrill in itself, it was soon to expand to the eightsome forces of the Mendelssohn. Written – as second violinist Gordon Bragg reminded us in his programme introduction – when Mendelssohn was but a lad, it’s a work of uncanny maturity fired by the spontaneous ferocity of youth, an incendiary combination articulated with tantalising vitality in this performance.

Knowing gestures, friendly smiles and all-out teamwork were the outward signs of a corporate internalised instinct. Where dazzling, detailed interplay made much of work’s dizzying intricacies – just occasionally edging over the safety limit – there was ample symphonic fullness when the moment demanded. It’s a work we hear time and time again, but just sometimes, like this, you sit up and take fresh notice.  
Ken Walton