Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Beethoven – Mass in C; Mozart – ‘Posthorn’ Serenade: LSO @ Barbican Hall, London

Verve, wit, excitement, joy: only a few of the many facets to this concert by the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis.

Opening with Mozart’s seven-movement Serenade No 9 in D major, K 320 (known as the ‘Posthorn’), this virtuosic ensemble and their sprightly Principal Conductor explored every niche of Mozart’s surprisingly wide-ranging early masterpiece.

Composed for Salzburg’s end-of-year student celebration in August 1779, the work incorporates the styles of symphony, dance and concerto into the same piece of music.

The first movement is symphonic, resembling opera seria overtures of the day, and was a grand start. After a slow opening statement, the strings played semiquaver statements that moved from major to minor and back again very quickly, introducing a modal shift and hint of danger that would pervade the whole work.

The horns excelled, with prominent oboe solos and a dazzling trumpet fanfare, showing the LSO in top form. Then the second movement introduced a dance form a Minuet and Trio that was played with contrasting pomposity and cheekiness. The decorations at the end of the violin theme of the Minuet were especially funny; one could sense the first violins chuckling along with the music. And the solo flute demonstrated astonishing breath control and a soaring quality in both this and the following movement, a Concertante with the oboes.

Here, the entire wind section united with sensitive phrasing and careful dynamics, to a ravishingly warm string accompaniment. The violins and cellos introduced a minor key element once again, before a spectacular cadenza, featuring the solo flutes, oboe and bassoon in canonic entries, coming together for a beautifully articulated finish. The playing was, throughout, equal to the standard of international recording soloists.

The flute and oboe impressed again in the fourth movement, whilst the Andantino was the most poignant of the seven. Here, the suspensions in the strings and the melancholy of the oboe line seemed to point towards later Mozart pieces such as Don Giovanni rather than the music of a man in his early twenties. After the sublime heights of the Andantino came the second Minuet and Double Trio, this time featuring a pert piccolo obbligato in the first trio and a wowing solo from the posthorn, a simple trumpet which gives the piece its nickname. The Presto Finale was played with humbling energy, the violinists ripping the scales from their instruments, and again, the late Jupiter symphony seemed to be anticipated. A grand performance indeed.

After the interval, we were treated to Beethoven’s underrated Mass in C. The London Symphony Chorus was in even better form than for last week’s Missa Solemnis, this time with a full grasp of the technical as well as spiritual aspects of the work.

Indeed, ‘spirited’ describes the entire performance of this work. Sir Colin seems instinctively to understand the meaning of this music, and his inspired conducting belies his seventy-eight years (I have seen less energy from conductors in their twenties). He was lucky in his soloists, too: former ROH Young Artist, soprano Sally Matthews had an underwhelming start in the Kyrie eleison but produced beautiful tone in the Sanctus particularly; mezzo Sara Mingardo was for me the best of the singers, with the most interesting and least strained voice; John Mark Ainsley was bland but had a ringing quality to his tenor; and if Alastair Miles was a bit restrained, at least that’s in keeping with this piece, which was commissioned by Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy for the name-day of his wife. The Prince was disappointed with the results, but today the score seems both vibrant and deeply religious.

Each of the three lines of the Kyrie is given an individual character, and the textural contrasts were brilliantly conveyed by Sir Colin and his forces. The choral basses opened confidently with their unaccompanied phrase, then the strings and upper voices entered to overwhelm the senses. The central section is given to the soloists, who brought a chamber quality to the line ‘Christ, have mercy on us’, and the chorus returned with splendour in the last line.

The Gloria was high-spirited. An opening blast of ‘Gloria’ is followed by a dramatic pause, then the effect is repeated; the LSC and the strings were tremendous. The central section is once more allotted to the soloists, and Mingardo’s high class was evident in the heartfelt ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’. The movement ends with fugal entries, which were excitingly rendered, and the ‘Amen’ would have been perfect had it not been for a soprano chorister making an inadvertent entry a bar too soon. Nevertheless, a ripple applause showed the audience had enjoyed it.

The long journey of the Credo proved Davis’ ability with large-scale drama, bringing a savage colour to the description of the Crucifixion and a sunnier character to the description of the resurrection of the dead. The a capella beginning of the Sanctus found the chorus in strong voice, with a touching clarinet melody doubling the sopranos.

Perhaps Beethoven’s decision to end the Agnus Dei with mystery rather than Ode to Joy-like vivacity came as a surprise, but the waves of string melody at the end concluded a performance of sincerity and care, and one of the best concerts of the year so far. The recording promises to be something special.

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