London Mozart Players & Howard Shelley at St John’s Smith Square – Beethoven, Grieg & Brahms

Coriolan Overture, Op.62
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68

London Mozart Players
Howard Shelley (piano)

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 25 April, 2012
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

The week before we had heard Alexander Shelley conducting an outstanding concert with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Cadogan Hall; eight days later, we had his father Howard conducting and playing an excellent programme with the London Mozart Players. The different venues in which these concerts took place might have had some bearing on the results, for the venue for Shelley père’s concert – St John’s, Smith Square – is acoustically not invariably generous or warm to a modern orchestra, albeit, as in this instance, not of philharmonic size in terms of numbers. But St John’s is by no means unsuitable, as countless concerts over the years have confirmed, yet the acoustic does require consideration at times, especially with regard to lower brass and timpani, which momentarily tended to be somewhat out-of-sync with regard to the rest of the orchestra in this instance. However, one’s ears soon adjusted to the occasionally unnatural balance, supplying that which was needed, enabling one to appreciate the outstandingly fine musicianship which Howard Shelley brought to these works.

One has to say that there is an element – no more – among concert-goers which presumes an ensemble such as the London Mozart Players cannot compare with the bigger and longer-established symphony orchestras in the capital. That such a presupposition is groundless was shown quite clearly in Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture. This work fitted the acoustic hand-in-glove and Shelley’s reading of it was superb. Too often, in this magnificent piece, lesser conductors treat it as some kind of early-Romantic score, cutting short the rests, pulling the tempos and generally failing to grasp the inherent nature of Beethoven in C minor. Shelley will have none of these superficialities: his was a reading to rank with the finest, true to Beethoven’s mighty conception, and the execution was excellent.

The notion of playing and conducting Grieg’s Piano Concerto might seem a daunting, not to say foolhardy, task. But for Shelley, this work would appear to pose no more problems in that regard than one by Mozart – not that there are no problems at all in the concertos of the latter composer, of course there are – it is just that Shelley has raised the concept of conducting from the keyboard to a new level, certainly extending the historical range of such performance-practice to a later period in musical evolution with the result that a piano concerto of 1868 (as Grieg’s is) performed in this manner by this artist is approached in its technical demands from the same viewpoint of a work written up a century earlier.

From the opening bars it was clear that the members of the LMP had every faith in their soloist-conductor – and he in them. We can certainly speak of a ‘oneness of conception’, with neither soloist nor conductor getting in each other’s way, so that we could sit back and enjoy this always-delightful and original masterpiece, prefaced by Shelley’s illuminating remarks. It was a remarkably fine performance, especially the first movement: only in the ‘question-and-answer’ section in the Adagio, between the melodic chords of the soloist and the solo horn, prefacing the coda, did one feel Shelley was not as dolce as he might have preferred. The finale went with a proper combination of lively dance and lyrical melodiousness; the first flute was excellent.

Brahms’s First Symphony, like Coriolan also in C minor, and appearing eight years after Grieg’s Piano Concerto, is very different. Although the internal balance in this acoustic was not ideal, as a realisation of this still-problematic score (this symphony, for all it being so well-known, does not play itself), this account was shot through with musical understanding and organic perception of a high order. Attentive listeners were surely wholly involved in this performance, so successful was Shelley in collating the myriad tempos of the finale into a convincing totality; the third movement was exceptionally well done, and all in all it was clear that Shelley had the full measure of this work.

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