Mozart at Aldeburgh’s Easter Festival – 2

Sinfonia concertante in E flat for violin, viola and orchestra, K364
Requiem, K626 [edited and completed by Robert Levin]

Isabelle van Keulen (violin) & Isabel Charisius (viola)

Caroline McPhie (soprano), Kate Symonds-Joy (mezzo-soprano), James Geer (tenor) & Benedict Nelson (bass)

Anton Bruckner Choir
Britten-Pears Chamber Choir

Britten-Pears Orchestra
Bernard Labadie

Reviewed by: Rian Evans

Reviewed: 12 April, 2009
Venue: Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh, Suffolk

Bernard LabadieAs the first phase of Aldeburgh Music’s development plan – the new studio complex housed in Snape’s remaining derelict maltings – looks forward to opening its doors next month, signs of the exponential growth it represents are already evident. The words “prepared during an Aldeburgh Residency” are appearing more and more often and it’s not simply a question of new forces getting the chance to forge performing relationships but of developing new ideas and concepts, with I Fagiolini’s new production “Tallis in Wonderland” the latest of these. Yet what is striking is the way that, in all of this, Aldeburgh is honouring the original vision of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears for Snape, fulfilling their commitment to education and to artist development. As the rest of the world wakes up to the importance of these fundamentals, it is instructive to realise just how far ahead of their time Britten and Pears were.

At the evening’s concert in Snape Maltings, the Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie brought the same ‘period’-values to bear on two staples of the Mozart repertoire. Pairing the K364 Sinfonia concertante with the “Requiem” was in itself inspired and the partnership of viola-player Isabel Charisius – string tutor to the Britten-Pears Orchestra – with violinist Isabelle van Keulen was also most sympathetic and fruitful. Labadie succeeded in pointing up the miraculous felicities of this music’s structure, while yet making it carry a vibrant energy and provide the soloists with the right combination of support and fluidity. Charisius played with all the assurance of one who knows that the viola was Mozart’s own, favoured instrument, the sound warm and never strident. But it was the clarity and poise of van Keulen’s playing that was defining, with everything beautifully articulated and the central Andante with its minor mode reaching a pinnacle of expressiveness and deeply moving.

Robert Levin’s completion of Mozart’s “Requiem” still has to prove its case, with the element of scholarly needle quite undisguised in the programme note. But Labadie’s breezy conviction went a long way to argue its virtues. He moved as far away from ponderous gravitas as was viable for a requiem, introducing a lightness and freshness to proceedings which not only worked well in the setting of Snape but seemed to carry the music, Levin’s included, with it. The combined forces of the Anton Bruckner Choir and the Britten-Pears Chamber choir brought suppleness that allowed the fugal writing to fly along, while the soloists all acquitted themselves well. In particular, Benedict Nelson realised the ‘Tuba Mirum’ admirably, with Iain Maxwell’s trombone solo gratefully acknowledged by Labadie.

The conductor’s balancing of Mozart’s dark colouring – notably its basset-horn and trombone instrumentation – was carefully measured, allowing the harmonic language to be emotive without becoming overbearing. Levin’s controversial addition of a fugal “Amen” at the end of the ‘Lachrymosa’ makes for uneasy listening, but Britten’s Aldeburgh is the right place for experiment and there was an integrity to Labadie’s handling of this performance that made it altogether worthwhile.

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