The Budapest Festival Orchestra under Iván Fischer presented their take on 1791 – the last year of Mozart’s life – on Friday evening, eschewing the usual Zauberflöte overture in favour of the bass concert aria Per questa bella mano. The aria was given a lively rendering, with the orchestra’s lead double-bass player, Zsolt Fejérvári, showcasing the instrument with a splendidly ostentatious performance. Hanno Müller-Brachmann, (standing in for the indisposed Neal Davies) displayed a magnificent voice in the lower stave, but it was inclined to become a little stretched and thin in the upper reaches.
Probably no work better flaunts the liquid low register of the basset clarinet than Mozart’s A-major concerto, and Ákos Ács gave full rein to this in his flawless account, demonstrating also how the transition between the different timbres of a clarinet can be made seamlessly, as well as producing some sublime – almost unsounded – pianissimo moments in the slow movement. The orchestra delivered a mannered performance, allowing the soloist room, but providing an elegant texture of support – the repeated-note phrase of the pick-up of the last movement was inspired. The performance also reminded us of Mozart’s skill in writing for woodwind: not only, in this case, for the solo clarinet, but also for the subtle addition to the piece’s complexion by the bassoons and flutes. As a well-deserved victory lap, Ács gave a wittily throw-away performance of Belá Kováks’ Sholem Alekhem, Rov Feidman, pulling his clarinet apart at the end in a ‘that’s-your-lot’ gesture, to massive applause.
The orchestra’s mannered style continued in the last of the pieces, Mozart’s unfinished Requiem (in the version completed by Süssmeyr). The initial Requiem aeternam was nicely detached, as was the subsequent Dies irae, and there were some elegant pull-ups (especially in the requiem sempiternam of the Agnus dei). This, however, was partly the problem; the piece was too elegant and too ‘nice’. The eighteenth century, for all its neo-classicism, was perfectly capable of a gothic sensibility, yet none of this was apparent. There was no hellfire in the Confutatis – merely a quickening of the pace; the Lux aeterna was prosaic rather than glowing, and the two fugues towards the end felt without trajectory.
Fischer had opted for an unusual stage layout – the basset horns and bassoon were to the front (so, yes, Mozart’s delicious wind writing was on full display), but the rest of the orchestra and choir were placed in a mixed-up fashion (with singers standing between instruments) around the soloists, who were on a precipitously high podium. If the intention was for a more homogenous sound, this was certainly achieved, but it left the question hanging as to whether this was a good thing.
Another contributory factor to the lack of excitement was that the choir (Collegium Vocale, Gent) was somewhat out-gunned by the orchestra, with the result that the quiet choral passages (such as the alto-entry dona nobis) were lovely, but the moments where volume and attack were needed felt flabby – the orchestra desperately playing down to accommodate the singers. The Amen at the end of the Lacrimosa, which should represent the transcendent end of Mozart’s life, was – in an ironically appropriate sense – simply mundane.
In addition to Müller-Brachman, the soloists – the soprano Lucy Crowe the mezzo Barbara Kozelj and the tenor Jeremy Ovenden – were generally good, although only Lucy Crowe was outstanding. None of them, however, deserved the treatment of Recordare – surely the piece’s most tender movement – which was taken at such an insultingly fast pace that none of the magical vocal suspensions was given any hope of shining.