Mozart @ 250

Barbican Hall, London

Symphony No.41 in C, K551 (Jupiter)
Mass in C minor, K427/417a [reconstructed Eder, edited Hall/Köhler]

Laura Aikin (soprano)
Emma Bell (soprano)
Jeremy Ovenden (tenor)
James Rutherford (bass)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson

St Giles, Cripplegate, London

Serenade in D, K239 (Serenata notturna)
Serenade in G, K525 (Eine kleine Nachtmusik)
Serenade in B flat, K361 (Gran Partita)

BBC Symphony Orchestra Chamber Ensemble


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 27 January, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall & St Giles Cripplegate, London

The BBC Symphony Orchestra commemorated Mozart’s 250th birthday on the day itself with this double bill of events – the first of which brought David Robertson to the podium, fresh from his successes at the recent Elliott Carter weekend, for two weighty masterpieces from the composer’s Viennese years.

He brought a lithe and incisive approach to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in his first concert as the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor last October, and similar qualities were evident in this account of the Jupiter: an opening Allegro that unfolded with a keen appreciation of the music’s alternation between the rhetorical and the urbane, an Andante with the requisite pathos if lacking a degree of expressive ambiguity, and a Minuet that remained danceable for all its confident sweep.

Robertson favoured a smallish string body – with violins divided left and right so that the antiphonal exchanges, in what is Mozart’s most contrapuntally intricate symphony, came across with exemplary clarity. All repeats, save for that in the Andante, were observed – and yet something of the work’s sheer majesty proved elusive; notably in the finale, whose densely-woven textures were vividly delineated but whose rhythmic energy was not always matched by the physical impact vital in this movement more than any other by Mozart. The coda, its five-part counterpoint unfailingly lucid, built to an apotheosis that impressed more through ingenuity of execution than by grandeur of conception.

From C major to C minor – and the Mass that Mozart planned ostensibly in celebration of his marriage to Constanze Weber, but which he left in 1783 with its ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Benedictus’ only drafted, and with the second half of the ‘Credo’ and the whole of the ‘Agnus Dei’ not even begun. Recent commentators have speculated on the possibility that, having undertaken the setting primarily to gain first-hand experience with the contrapuntal techniques found in the choral works of Bach and Handel, Mozart felt such a process of absorption to be complete and abandoned the non-commissioned Mass forthwith.

Even as a torso, the piece is on a scale that anticipates the Masses of Beethoven, Schubert and even Bruckner, while its bringing together of Renaissance austerity and nascent Romantic expressiveness within an expanded but firmly Classical tonal framework remains unparalleled in the music of its era.

Robertson set a forward but flexible tempo for the ‘Kyrie’, its supplicatory central ‘Christe’ exquisitely rendered by Laura Aikin – her contribution the highlight of the performance overall. Indeed, the poise and never-arch delicacy that she brought to ‘Et incarnatus est’ (‘Credo’), dovetailing ideally with the obbligato wind trio, was a sure highpoint. Emma Bell’s more overtly demonstrative manner, impressive as singing per se, is far less involving emotionally. That said, her voice – pitched unerringly between soprano and mezzo registers – is already a formidable instrument: witness her uninhibited response to the technical demands of ‘Laudamus te’ (‘Gloria’), or the sheer aplomb with which she and Aikin traded exchanges in the decidedly operatic ‘Domine Deus’. Given the paucity of material, the two male soloists could hardly be expected to compete – but Jeremy Ovenden made the most of his mellifluous line in the trio of ‘Quoniam tu’, while James Rutherford brought a warm composure to the elaborate but never superficially florid quartet setting of the ‘Benedictus’.

Nor should the contribution of the BBC Symphony Chorus be overlooked: in particular, the unanimity of its singing in the incisive opening sections of the ‘Gloria’ and ‘Credo’, its baleful tone in the arresting settings at ‘Gratias’ and ‘Qui tollis’, and the energetic vigour invested in the fugal perorations at ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ and ‘Hosanna’. Mozart’s mighty odyssey will receive many airings during 2006, but it would be hard to imagine one as responsive to its compendious expression as heard here.

Following the exalted seriousness of the main offering, what better than a trio of serenades – heard to advantage in the spacious but never subfusc confines of St Giles Cripplegate. In fact, this late-evening event was hardly less substantial – a tribute to the formal ingenuity and also expressive range Mozart invested into this ‘light entertainment’ medium. Stephen Bryant led the BBCSO strings in sprightly performances of Serenata notturna’ – Mozart’s likely present to himself on his 20th birthday, where his ironic debunking of Classical convention finds an affectionate outlet – and Eine kleine Nachtmusik – ubiquitous to the point where it can be difficult to appreciate purely as music, but whose wistful ‘Romanza’ embodies a process of variation as stood composers from Beethoven to Schoenberg in good stead, and whose ebullience elsewhere Mozart seldom captured so completely.

Even so, it was the non-conducted performance of the large-scale ‘Gran Partita’ that stole the show. Whether through the needs of the event at hand, or simply a desire to give thirteen ‘crack’ musicians something to get their collective teeth into, Mozart simultaneously created a medium and gave it its masterpiece. There were many fine things – not least the Stravinskian incisiveness of the Allegros that frame the work (the former’s Largo introduction monumental but not marmoreal), the effervescence of the two Minuets that did not preclude more equivocal emotions in the trios, and the wistful gentleness of the ‘Romanza’. The expansive Adagio was given at an ideally flowing tempo – giving an attractive lilt to its soul-searching, though intonation was more fallible here than elsewhere – while the ‘Theme with Variations’ moved seamlessly (rare in itself) between jocularity and profundity.

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