Mostly Mozart – Plus Beethoven & Bruch

The Creatures of Prometheus, Op.43 – Overture
Clarinet Concerto in A, K622
Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.26
Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93

Julian Bliss (basset clarinet)

Viviane Hagner (violin)

Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Edward Gardner

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 21 July, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

How good it is to see Edward Gardner conducting – he is usually now found in the pit at the London Coliseum conducting many of English National Opera’s productions as its recently-installed music director.

Beethoven’s ballet score is little heard complete, but the Overture is often featured. Its dramatic opening and subsequent rapid flow recall the opening movement of his First Symphony. The conflict between these two ideas didn’t quite ignite here but the momentum that was built up carried off the piece well.

Julian Bliss seems to be known for nothing but the Mozart Clarinet Concerto (the last concerto Mozart wrote for any instrument), and he is clearly very well practised in it, never having to so much as glance at Gardner, the result being that this felt like a performance on auto-pilot, with no sense of spontaneity or of exploring the depths of the music. It was good to hear the piece played on the instrument for which it was written, a basset clarinet, allowing the low notes that Mozart wrote to be sounded well. There was plenty of a lightness of touch in the upper registers but little of the opposite. The Adagio, the emotional core of the work, complete with a brief cadenza by Bliss (no more is required), was notable for the level of superb balance between soloist and orchestra, though the point where the main musical idea returns jarred slightly. The final movement, like the first, was sprightly, never allowing deeper elements to get a look in. Which was a pity. Like Gardner, Bliss opted for the comfortable route through the piece.

Another concerto after the interval, this time Bruch’s First for violin. He wrote two others, and one always wishes that the Third receives more of an outing. If the Mozart was marked as ‘safe’, this was in complete contrast. At the beginning Viviane Hagner was disastrously out of step with the orchestra, so keen was she to assert her authority over an immovable orchestra and conductor, and there was little agreement between the two throughout. The movement’s climax, when it came, was, apart from its core, rather limp – all too brief an emotional outburst. In the Adagio the soloist seemed inconsequential against the beauty of the orchestral playing. The finale lacked the necessary élan and there seemed to be a harsh tone developing amongst the violins, which became more pronounced in the Beethoven. The contributions from the brass and woodwind were particularly noteworthy for their clarity and apparent spontaneity.

The opening to the Beethoven was not quite the explosive start it requires but more of a merry dance. Only too briefly did the Allegro con brio catch fire; this was a performance more eager to cross Ts and dot Is. Antiphonal violins, at least here, would have been a huge help in elucidating the cut and thrust of the piece. The tick-tock of the Allegretto scherzando did only this before that rather odd edge to the strings reared its head again. It was difficult to pin-point but one could almost think of it as an impurity. However, the clarinet solo in the third movement was wonderful. The final movement had plenty of life and good internal clarity with crescendos well-built.

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