Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Gift of Youth review – sprightly performances of Mozart and Kidane from LPO

16 March 2024

London Philharmonic Orchestra apply zest to a pair of Mozart classics, and, with soloist Julia Fischer, tackle Daniel Kidane’s new violin concerto with determined gusto.

LPO & Gardner, Mozart and Kidane

LPO, LPC, Rupert Charlesworth, Nardus Williams, Hera Hyesang Park & Edward Gardner (Photo: London Philharmonic Orchestra)

The portentous brass statements and the subsequent whimsical fugue of Mozart’s overture to The Magic Flute are instantly recognisable, and I’d bet even money that the piece would be on a list of ‘Top ten concert-openers’. But the thing is, you never tire of it; it’s a brilliant piece of writing by a musical genius who died at such a young age, leaving so much more to be said. The LPO under Edward Gardner (who himself is an evergreen phenomenon) reminded us of this brilliance in a crisp performance at the opening of their concert at the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday evening. Although the orchestra isn’t in any sense a ‘period ensemble’, they brought an 18th century quality to their account. The natural trumpets and tap timps helped, of course, but the smooth homogeneity of a modern orchestra was replaced by an enjoyably complex set of textures from slightly rude brass, edgier strings and pithier woodwinds.

When a composer tells you in a programme note that their violin concerto is “…more like a concerto for both violin and orchestra…” and that there is “…arguing between the orchestra and violin…” you wonder whether they have actually made any study of the form, or listened to any other concerto. It’s as though Brahms, Sibelius, Berg et al were being dismissed as having simply written pieces for solo violin and then added some very expensive, rather prosaic, accompaniment. Perhaps what Daniel Kidane means about his concerto Aloud (given its world première at the concert) is that the barrage of orchestral colours therein can’t be replaced by a piano reduction. If that’s the case, then, he is, perhaps, making some kind of a point, although it needs more work.

Aloud, based (very) loosely on a Cossack folk song, was written as a response to our current world troubles, and particularly the conflict between Russia and Ukraine (Kidane has connections in both countries). It’s a seamless – but sectional – piece in a single movement. Certainly, timbre and rhythm are to the fore, and its roots in 20th century Modernism are evident: the first section opens with rustles and flutters in the woodwind and percussion, to be followed by sonorous gongs and tubular bells, quacks from the winds, muted brass squirts and pizzicato ferocity from the strings. Here, legato is almost a rude word, and a disjointed, rhythmic bellicosity pervades. The solo violin passages come often as double-stopped octaves: pithy phrases spat at the orchestra. A short, quieter section follows, full of lusher clusters of notes that last longer than a couple of seconds. There is a more tranquil ‘conversation’ between the soloist, whose long, angular lines find some sort of orchestral response (albeit – perhaps deliberately – it seems to be one of those interchanges where both people are talking, but neither is listening). We then return to the more fractured material, and the concerto closes with a full orchestral swell over trumpet ostinati that decays into a whimpered pianissimo. File as ‘interesting, but wouldn’t rush to hear again’.

“London Philharmonic Choir delivered some good accounts: the ‘walls of sound’ for Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and so on were impressive…”

LPO & Gardner, Mozart and Kidane

LPO, Julia Fischer & Edward Gardner (Photo: London Philharmonic Orchestra)

The LPO made an excellent fist of delivering this bracing and rhythmically challenging material, Gardner, as always maintaining relaxed but meticulous control. Julia Fischer took the solo role, and there is almost no need to praise her consummate skill as a performer. The concerto certainly requires a forceful instrumental personality, and the busier passages need the attention of a virtuoso – all of which were given in full measure.

Even though Mozart’s ‘Great’ Mass in C-minor was written eight years before his death, it remained unfinished; it stands, though, as arguably, his greatest religious work. The choral writing alternates between impressively solid homophonic structures, and contrapuntal movements that hark back to the Baroque era; the sections for soloists are straight out of Mozart’s secular vocal works – Domine Deus always raising a smile at the ‘battle of the sopranos’; Laudamus te, a glorious concert aria that makes for maximum decoration; Et incarnatus, in which the twining lines for soprano, flute, oboe and bassoon (particularly in the cadenza) surely stand against any of the opera quartets.

LPO revisited the cleverly nuanced ‘period’ sound of the overture, turning in some finespun performances, and Gardner ensured plenty of drama from dynamic shifts (the sudden contrasts between light and shade in, say Quoniam or Qui tollis were magnificent). The broad passages (Jesu Christe, for example) took all the time they needed, yet the contrapuntal material bobbed along with a brisk perkiness.

London Philharmonic Choir delivered some good accounts: the ‘walls of sound’ for Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and so on were impressive, and the co-ordination was excellent (albeit that the consonants were sometimes a little over-ejective); the magical Qui tollis where the chorus’s long legato lines sit against the dotted orchestral hammering was brilliantly handled. There was, however, a tendency for a little overblowing in the tenor section in the more exciting moments, and some of the high, quiet, soprano entries were a little under the note.

The lion’s share of the solo work goes to the two sopranos, and Hera Hyesang Park and Nardus Williams absolutely nailed their solo items (Williams’ Laudamus was a complete joy), and their voices worked well in duet, Park’s creamier tone contrasting nicely with Williams’ slightly more edgy timbre. The tenor and bass, sadly, get little to do (perhaps Mozart would have given them some glory in the missing movements), but Rupert Charlesworth and Ashley Riches acquitted themselves well.

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