Piano Concerto No.16 in D, K451
Lars Vogt (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 2 February, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
This was an enormously satisfying concert (broadcast live on BBC Radio 3): the combination of Mozart in display mode with Mahler’s Tragic Symphony (as it is sometimes known) worked perfectly. It helped that Lars Vogt is the most perceptive of Mozarteans and Jiří Bělohlávek one of the finest Mahlerians. It was also a joy to hear the BBC Symphony Orchestra working hand-in-glove with its Chief Conductor giving a detailed account of a symphony which all-too-often is inadequately prepared.
Lars Vogt has that rare ability to surprise the listener with a sudden change of perspective. There was no pretence of profundity here, but, whilst this particular Mozart piano concerto is not amongst the greatest of them, K451 richly repays the craft of fine music-making. In its flowing Andante Vogt resisted the temptation to over-inflate Mozart’s unpretentious material, yet dovetailed beautifully with the flute, oboe and bassoon so that the movement became almost a wind serenade with piano obbligato, whilst in the finale there is an infectious gaiety and spontaneity which these performers caught like a butterfly on the wing.
From some conductors Mahler 6 can seem a very long listen. Not here, the whole work passed as a unity. The first movement hit the ground running with a perfect tempo – fast enough to give a sense of driving forward and slow enough to allow for Luft between the marching bass notes. The exposition repeat was observed. There was a real and unexpected ferocity too. Even more impressive were the succeeding movements.
Bělohlávek holds strong views about the symphony’s movement-order and – rightly – he places the Andante second (to match all of the performances of the work that took place during Mahler’s lifetime: please see link below). Under Bělohlávek’s leadership – helped by some gloriously tender wind-playing and the most subtle of first horns (Nicholas Korth), this slow movement emerged as one of Mahler’s greatest, the climax soaring aloft in the violins with real frisson, with the close almost post-coital in its repose. For once the scherzo – marked Wuchtig (forceful) – was taken well up to speed, rather than the usual trudge, the contrasting episodes ‘in an old-fashioned style’ maintaining their momentum, Bělohlávek not losing direction or trying to micro-manage.
The first three movements may resemble the organisation of a ‘classical’ symphony, but the massive finale might be termed a ‘symphonic psychodrama’. Tensions eddy back and forth in the shadows of its extended introduction before the movement proper erupts and, after that, although the music may cast glances backward, there is little-knowing where it will take us next. Ideally – and this was close to ideal – it should be a white-knuckle ride to the abyss where, however well one knows the work, what lies round the next corner remains a surprise. The sense of extreme peril was particularly well-conveyed in the Introduction which mirrored the queasy sensation one gets walking across the surface of a bog, whilst immediately prior to the first hammer-blow there was an ecstatic quality which was totally psychologically true to the music in the sense that immediately before a disaster there is frequently a moment of euphoria. It was this added dimension which set this apart from some other very fine but more literal performances. The hammer-blows – two of them – were the only slight disappointment, possibly due to the apparatus itself which could have done with being larger. For the rest this was an exceptional contribution to the (second) Year of Mahler.