Mozart was born 250 years ago this month, and it’s the centenary of Shostakovich‘s birth in September. Bernard Haitink joined the London Symphony Orchestra to kick start the New Year with Mozart’s final piano concerto and Shostakovich’s fifth symphony.
The B flat concerto K595 is deservedly popular with audiences and performers alike, though its interpretation has been largely coloured by its position in the Mozart canon. For years it was thought that the concerto was written in the last year of the composer’s life, and in consequence has been read as an autumnal, elegiac piece of music, treated gingerly and sapped of its vitality. More recent research has suggested that the work was conceived at least three years earlier, and in consequence should not be regarded as quite the expression of a dying man’s painful anticipation of his early death that nineteenth century scholars would have us believe.
In these days of period performance practice it is difficult for big orchestras to present Mozart concerti in large concert halls with any success. And unfortunately Haitink and the LSO failed to change that in many respects. The soloist was the Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires, replacing the injured Murray Perahia and making a rare London concerto appearance.
Yet Pires’ approach was sadly lacking in life and vigour, though she brought some wonderful colours to the slow movement. The first found the orchestra strangely unbalanced. The violins were divided, which should facilitate clarity of textures; but instead, the first violins dominated the entire orchestra for most of the concerto, often to the detriment of the inner workings of the music. At the recapitulation, the flute and horns combined in one of Mozart’s radiantly imaginative sound effects, and just before that the second violins at last came through for the canonic entries. But in general, the concerto was a very damp squid indeed, with Pires pedalling some scalic passages in a very odd manner, and stamping her feet when the slightest physical effort was required of her.
After the interval, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony brought forth more of the LSO’s good qualities, though even here either a lack of preparation or understanding resulted in fluffed horn entries, uneven string melodies and a shortage of overall direction. With the entry of the piano in the first movement the music sprang back to life, however. The contrast of violin melody and harp chords introduced a weariness which was contrasted by the bombast of the march which closes the movement. Here, maniacal flutes punctuated the grotesquely haunting main theme. Leader Gordan Nikolitch was in his usual virtuosic form, whether closing the movement with its high exposed sustained note or whipping his section into frenzied action.
The famous second movement, obviously inspired by Mahler, was a disappointment again, taken too cautiously and lacking the neo-baroque precision wherein lies its Affekt. The third movement was beautifully played, with the sustained lower string melody introducing a singing melody, but failed to induce the tears which greeted its poignant premiere at the time of Stalin’s dictatorship.
In the finale, the orchestra was in top form. Driven to the extreme of human capabilities, apparently, the strings were almost levitating from the stage floor, so intense was their effort. The timpani and brass contributions were exemplary, and at last the dexterity for which these players are renowned was apparent.