Mozart and Britten by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra

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Pianist Andrea Lam

City Recital Hall, Angel Place
3 February 2011
to be broadcast on ABC Classic FM 92.9 sometime after February

Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Concerto in D for piano and violin, K. 315f
reconstructed by Philip Wilby from fragment K. Anhang 56 and violin sonata in D K. 306
Andrea Lam, piano
Dene Olding, violin-director

Benjamin Britten
Sinfonietta, Op. 1

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Symphony in D (from the serenade in D (“Posthorn”) K. 320)

Frank Bridge
3 Idylls
No. 2 Allegretto poco lento

I have heard it lamented “O, if only Mozart had written 25 violin concertos in the 1780s and only 5 piano concertos.” Notwithstanding the alternate universe where Mozart lived to 89 and wrote many of each, the D major concerto for piano and violin, as Philip Wilby reconstructed it in 1985, goes some way to consoling the lamenting violinist. Mozart began composing the fragment (which W. J. Turner in his 20th century biography, disappointed not to have more of it, called a “remarkably fine work”) sometime during his month-long stay in Mannheim in 1778 on the way back to Salzburg from Paris. Whereas Mozart wrote the 5 violin concertos for himself to play, this concerto he intended for another violinist, Ignatz Franzl, probably intending to perform the piano part himself; he wrote to his father just before leaving Paris that he wanted to give up playing the violin. This was at a weighty juncture, or at least a phase change, in Mozart’s life often implicitly or explicitly considered the fulcrum between “early Mozart” and “late Mozart.” Indeed the double concerto shows some of the Mozartish profundity and ecstasy of the later piano concertos while still having much of the humor, play and levity of the young Mozart. Mr Wilby completed the concerto using music from a later violin sonata (in D, KV 306, a lovely recording of which with Corey Cerovsek and Jeremy Denk from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum can be heard on the Petrucci Music Library) into which it seems Mozart recycled his ideas for the double concerto. The sonata does have, at least in retrospect, an unusual singing and independent-minded piano accompaniment, a cadenza, part of which the piano gets to play, and a general feeling of greatness and expansiveness which is an odd attitude for a sonata to be wearing. Thus the reconstructed concerto gives a fascinating foreshadowing of the advancements Mozart gave his art, and his beloved genre the piano concerto in particular. but far from merely a thing of academic interest, the piece is beautiful and touching on a human level and well worth performing.

Mr Olding’s direction brought out the drama inherent in this concerto and the orchestra was clearly well rehearsed and knew the piece very well; he sometimes beat time with his bow when not playing. As a soloist conducting the orchestra from his instrument, he was quite proletarian, allowing the mob to shine a bit into the soloists’ foreground even while his part floated above. His tone was quite gentle never pushing out or contrasting too heavily with the orchestra to show off and the orchestration is quite colorful. The slow movement started off sounding more adagio then andantino cantabile but found a stronger pulse soon into it. Mr Olding interpreted the cantabile with a rather choral orchestra and conversational soloists. The two played a bit like chamber players with Ms Lam and Mr Olding holding eye contact at crucial places such as the third movement’s cadenza, after which the orchestra made a sunny return to finished the piece.

Ms Lam’s touch was sensitive — the forte rounded and bright without being at all heavy or thumping and the piano unpercussive but projecting throughout the hall over the orchestra. Some of her turning quadruplets sounded perhaps a bit over-accented in the middle in the marginally bright acoustics of the hall. She nods her head only slightly, bending her whole upper body over the piano or towards the violinist and drawing out expressive notes with her épaulement. She seemed to understand Mozart’s style of marrying profundity and simplicity and connected with Olding, their instruments conversing and cooperating, allowing Mozart’s melodic themes to provide their natural drama.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Keith Saunders.

The Britten Sinfonietta though originally for a string quintet plus wind quintet, the orchestra handled nimbly with roughly the same numbers (~35 players) as the Mozart. Their changes in mood were rapid yet had a feeling of continuity and the piece sounded fresh. This is another “youth” piece —  “youth” only insofar as the composer wrote it in his 20s with the fresh combination of urbanity and youth of a genius. As Mr Olding pointed out in his spiel while the piano was being wheeled off, Britten wrote some hundreds of pieces before his “opus 1.”

The sinfonietta began with a shadowy urban sound, then quickly shed its tinge of jazz-color to move through a lush jungle of varied moods. A violin duet with lovely counterpoint and with intermittent brushed bass and cello strings broke through the canopy and sounded classical and celestial in its simplicity and was quite moving. The piece generally evoked the sense of a menagerie of wild animals all with their own natures and personalities coexisting in a jungle of melodies. It sounded quite organic. Emma Scholl’s flute was especially lovely an the precision of the lower strings played a very satisfying rhythm. The whole orchestra played this piece with a sense of wonder and a sympathy for Britten’s generous imagination.

The Mozart Symphony in D is taken from the serenade, shedding the Menuets, Concertante and Rondo sections. It held together as a cohesive and quite serious symphony. The orchestra for the first movement had a vigorous sense of majesty like an ideal benevolent monarch, a sense perhaps sometimes missed or expressed pompously or ironically in this modern age of republics, despots (sometimes both together) and motor cars (which J. R. R. Tolkien once called “self-obstructing traffic”). The earthy galloping in the allegro and presto movements also recalled days past and for me made a connection to the Britten piece with its animal deliberateness. This horse contrasted nicely with the symphonic regal grandness, but of course a symphony is many things at once. The horns and kettle drum were well balanced and the whole orchestra remained balanced through the rapid dynamics which were spectacular yet accurate and rational and touched on a human level.

The pre-announced “encore,” though its name and composer were left out of the program in an at best cheeky and at worst cynical PR gimmick to get us on to the Sydney Symphony’s twitter and facebook page. The Bridge idyll was played with mystery and the orchestra sounded lovely with its rich strings-in-unison. Originally a string quartet, the piece sounded quite avant-garde when orchestrated for 40 (perhaps most string quartets would being as they are often the laboratory for composers in an experimental mood), though perhaps the piece does want to be a string quartet after all.

About the author

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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