I may have missed the First Night of the Proms, but we at the Barbican were treated to a firework display.
The Mostly Mozart Festival – a Barbican season gradually establishing itself as an important part of the London cultural year though – returned on Friday with a very literal bang.
And Mozart’s monumental Mass in C Minor, the work that drew last year’s Proms to a majestic close, was a fabulous way to open.
I often forget just how good the work is. It shows the composer at his most Baroque, with the massive choral fugues and the French-overture styled syncopations of the Qui Tollis obvious tributes to Handel. But we also find Mozart at his most operatic. The soprano’s Laudamus te is an unashamed Italianate coloratura showpiece; the writing for woodwind throughout looks forward a few years to the scoring of Cos Fan Tutte; similarly, foreshadows of Don Giovanni are apparent in both the amalgam of styles and the awed, deathly modulations (the similarity is unmistakeable between Mozart’s setting of the word altissimus here and the final bars of Ottavio and Anna’s Scene One duet in the opera).
The performance on Friday evening was memorable. Conductor Louis Langre directed the festival orchestra, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields with great foresight, pushing the fugues, shaping the languid soprano solos and providing much drama with the slightest inflection of tempi or dynamic. And if the Mostly Mozart Festival Chorus couldn’t quite state every line of counterpoint cleanly, they sang stirringly and thoughtfully.
Susan Gritton, a consistently hardworking performer, took the difficult principal soprano part and did a good job. Her full, mellow tone and easy coloratura were suited to the role, but her trill on Friday was cumbersome and the oh-so-long breaths of the Et incarnatus est proved just one step too far. Not by much though. The whiter-toned Lucy Crowe, standing in for Cora Burggraaf, also convinced. Even her rollercoaster veers through the registers in the Laudamus te were pretty thrilling. Tenor Thomas Walker‘s voice was a size too small for the hall – a shame, for he sang very expressively – and poor old Iain Paterson had to hang around for fifty minutes to sing Mozart’s famously blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bass part. (He sang it well.) It all melded into a homogenous whole.
The concert’s first half was less convincing. Stefan Vladar played Mozart’s Piano Concerto 17 nimbly and prettily, but his introspective stance and touch threatened to mute the outer movements’ virtuosity. But that Andante was finely tackled, with lots of hovering pauses and lengthily phrased blocks contrasting the swelling pulse of orchestral storm clouds, hovering just beneath the surface.