Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Mozart Birthday Weekend – Concert 1 @ St John’s, Smith Square, London

27 January 2006

St John's Smith Square

St John’s Smith Square

It’s impossible not to give Mozart five stars on his birthday. Especially when it’s his 250th. It’s lucky, therefore, that the London Mozart Players gave their namesake a rousing concert of celebration that merits each and every one of those stars, otherwise how would my critical faculties look?

To start, an exemplary reading of the overture to Don Giovanni, K527, perhaps the darkest of Mozart’s operas. The overture juxtaposes this darkness with the opera’s lighter side (it is, after all, subtitled a drama giocoso or ‘happy’ drama). The first section anticipates the music of the Don’s death in a series of intensifying scales and maniacal wind chords that were played with spice by the LMP; the main Allegro movement presents the character’s life as a serial seducer, conveyed by a suitably visceral performance by the violins.

Next up, the short vocal piece Ergo Interest, K143, written when Mozart was a teenager. It’s a recitative and aria written in the Italian style, and is pretty without being quite a masterpiece. Here, the ex-Royal Opera Young Artist Sally Matthews rose to the challenge of the excessive ornaments and scales with grace and elegance, bringing an understanding of the composer’s word-setting of the sacred text.

Matthews’ performance of the more masterly Exsultate, jubilate, K165, after the interval was even more captivating. The work is a dramatic full aria or Scene in the style of mid-eighteenth Italian opera. The Exsultate, jubilate tells of great jubilation in the Holy Virgin, with two fast outer movements contrasted with a piece of recitative and a slow movement (though the latter was taken a little faster than usual by the LMP’s Principal Conductor, Andrew Parrott). Matthews brought a beautiful ringing quality to certain lines such as ‘dulcia cantica canendo’ (‘singing sweet songs’) and drew huge applause at the end of the ‘Alleluia’ for her fresh coloratura.

Continuing the sublime programming, the Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola brought the first half to an intense conclusion. LMP leader David Juritz brought a floating quality to the violin part, whilst violist Maxim Rysanov‘s deep tone gave the viola part a searing passion.

The first movement showed at once how excellent the communication between conductor, soloists and orchestra was going to be. For instance, the interplay between clarinets and soloists in the opening bars already demonstrated the brilliance of Mozart’s instrumentation. Also notable was the equality between the viola, an underused instrument in Mozart’s day, and the violin.

C minor is the key of the second movement, and it’s one of Mozart’s most deeply felt. The way he piles up the different lines, with the violin and viola sections of the orchestra each divided into two groups, creates a dramatic sonic effect. This was the highlight of the evening for me, the whole ensemble totally concentrated on an ominously rising theme. The finale was sprightly, leading to an impressive high virtuosic section for the soloists and ending on a note of jollity.

The rousing end to the concert, which was held in the presence of HRH The Earl of Wessex, was Symphony No 40 in G minor, K550. Familiar music, certainly, but in the hands of Parrott and the LMP it became something new and urgent; especially notable was the sighing feeling given to the chromatic descent after the main melody. The Andante again showed the skill of the wind section, whilst the Minuet had the character of a fiery dance juxtaposed with the frothier Trio. And the finale could hardly have been executed with more life and power.

A better tribute to perhaps the greatest composer of all time could hardly be imagined.

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