Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Mozart in London: Gabrieli Consort/Paul McCreesh @ Barbican Hall, London

14 June 2006

I really admire the Barbican for making such an effort to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth.

A stellar line-up of period orchestras is joining more conventional ensembles such as the LSO in a wide range of music to represent most facets of the composer’s output.

However, it had a bad start last week with the opera Ascanio in Alba, and this concert with the Gabrieli Consort and Players under Paul McCreesh, the third programme in the Mostly Mozart Festival, was scarcely any better.

I’m sad to say it, but boredom reigned for the greater part of the evening, which was titled ‘Mozart in London’. First up was Mozart’s Symphony No 1 in E flat major, K16, which he wrote at the age of eight. Fair enough, it’s a marvel for a child of that age. But as a symphony, it’s barely more than functional, with a harmonically redundant outline and a very dull set of melodies indeed.

The performance didn’t help to set it off, either: did we really need to hear all those repeats? Playing on period stringed instruments often causes a loss of bite, but here the musicians were taxed further by being forced to stand through the whole piece. However authentic in origin, this idea did nothing for the tone colours or phrasing of the violins, and the small number of bass instruments meant that the harmonic underpinning was weak through the whole evening. The first movement was tepid, but the minor-key second movement showed some signs of the warmth and rising chromatic lines of Mozart’s later slow movements, despite the horn players only managing to hit an average of one in three notes correctly. The finale was exuberant but empty.

Soprano Elin Manahan Thomas joined the orchestra for three arias by contemporaries of Mozart. Of these, the item by JC Bach (the ‘London’ Bach) ‘Midst silent shades and purling streams’ was by far the most successful. Perhaps the first section was a little too fast, but Thomas’ sweet tone and innocent performance style seemed to suit the purity of the piece. Fortepianist Ronald Brautigam played the continuo role for these three pieces, and demonstrated throughout a total insensitivity for the singer. The lack of ensemble marred Thomas Linley Jnr’s ‘Come unto these yellow sands’ particularly, with an absence of interaction between instruments and voice giving the song a detached feel. And in the cadenza for oboe and soprano, it felt more like the former had the important role. Stephen Storace’s ‘Be mine, tender passion’ was a more ambitious piece, with a highly sensuous musical surface, but Thomas was overshadowed by the larger ensemble, and her coloratura needed work to cope with so dextrous a vocal line.

We then heard the Piano Concerto No 12 in A major, K 414, with Brautigam returning as the soloist. Despite it being physically obvious that he was playing along in the tutti sections, the soloist made absolutely no impact on the sound. His playing is too self-absorbed, again lacking a sense of ensemble, and he is in general awkward and without grace. The playing was full of unintentional accents and uneven tone; one wondered whether it was really appropriate to use a fortepiano in a large venue such as this.

The strings had more character and played with more warmth, but Brautigam rattled off scale passages carelessly. The second movement started promisingly, with romantic shifting chords in the strings and a strong violin melody. However, the soloist again phrased the music badly, and the orchestra started to sag as well. After a bleak minor key episode, the cadenza was given a very studied performance. And though the third movement had a jaunty opening, the main theme became tiresome, so pedantic was McCreesh’s conducting, and there was again a brutality and a total lack of finesse in Brautigam’s playing.

He remained onstage for the next item, which was the only competently performed part of the programme. The concert aria ‘Ch’io mi scordi di te?…’ is one of Mozart’s most sublime works for the voice, and the Welsh soprano Rosemary Joshua more than did it justice. Unlike the score-bound Elin Manaham Thomas in the earlier arias, Joshua came on to the stage warmed up, her full tone complementing her emotional commitment. ‘Un moto di gioia’ was a welcome encore, done with nimble phrasing and careful attention to the words. It was a shame about Brautigam, though, who was heavy-handed and rushed in both pieces.

The orchestra took to their feet again for the last item, Mozart’s G minor Symphony No 40. From the start this was a disappointment. In all four movements, McCreesh seemed to have encouraged them to emphasise only consonant notes and play down the dissonances, with the result that the spice and danger of this normally thrilling music was obliterated. The slurs in the famous opening theme were neutralised, and the lack of bass players made one lose a sense of the music’s harmonic direction. The slow movement was tortuous, again with too many repeats and not enough made of the sculpture of the music. In theory, the third movement is a dance, but not here: the bobs and curtseys were replaced by rigor mortis, thanks to a plodding tempo. The start of the final movement lacked coordination and shape, with very imprecise phrasing and a lack of muscle.

In all, it was not the most impressive concert that the Barbican has ever hosted. Even the programme note was appallingly bad: Timothy Roberts‘ text didn’t follow the order of the programme and said almost nothing about the music.

There is hope next week, however, in the form of Mozart’s opera Il re pastore, and Don Giovanni the following week. Fingers crossed.

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