Second concert by Freiburg Baroque Orchestra

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra conducted by René Jacobs with Gottfried von der Goltz (violin) – second concert

Symphony No 92 in G (‘Oxford’ – Haydn), Violin Concerto No 5 in A, K 219 (‘Turkish’ – Mozart), Symphony No 41 in C, K 551 (‘Jupiter’ – Mozart)

Wellington Town Hall

Thursday 18 March 2010

These two concerts brought what is widely regarded and one of the half dozen finest period instrument orchestras to us.  It’s just as well such a band comes to play the great music of the late 18th century, as the big symphony orchestras don’t play it much anymore, having become embarrassed about it over the past 30 years for fear of criticism from the early music purists: Haydn, Mozart, even early Beethoven.

The orchestra comprises excellent musicians who, even without the discipline of a conductor, produces performances that are arresting and idiomatic, flexible and in perfect accord. That was the effect of hearing Mozart’s ‘Turkish’ violin concerto in which the soloist, von der Goltz, the orchestra’s concertmaster, made the running in its interpretation, in its rhythms and tempo:  was it fair to wonder whether Jacobs’s influence was tempered here, without the somewhat curious speeds and sudden rallentandi that characterised the two symphonies, particularly the Jupiter?

The concerto is an extraordinary piece for a 19-year-old. The rising arpeggios of its opening phase had all the speed needed, coloured by restrained vibrato; he was not shy of giving different shapes to the ornaments, of putting the stress, unusually, on the second beat, of taking his opportunities to elaborate phrases with little cadenza-like flourishes. All this was arguably in keeping with knowledge of 18th century practice, though I felt that the main first movement cadenza had echoes of the 19th century. The second movement found the soloist in a state of exquisite calm, playing with an intimacy of tone peculiar to the baroque violin. It lent a startling contrast to the last movement where the Turkish elements, popular in Vienna at this time, burst upon it and where an authentic sounding vigour emerged.

The two symphonies were presented in a way that inhabited a sound world that was rather more different from we are used to with conventional orchestras. Here, with Jacobs himself fully in charge, there was much to admire, in the warm sounds of the flute and the two wooden oboes, the natural horns and trumpets, enhanced by the clarity of the Town Hall; the hard timpani were distinctive, but after a while their sound seemed to become slightly dislocated from the ensemble of the rest of the orchestra.

I hardly recognized the slow movement of the Oxford Symphony though it was one of the pieces that I played, as cellist, in a predecessor of the Wellington Youth Orchestra a long time ago. And there were speeds that were, shall we say, surprising, even though one has heard this music played rather like this on record often enough. I was open to persuasion, and enjoyed the performance though I will also continue to enjoy full-blooded performances (if any) by conventional symphony orchestras.

Jacobs’ field extends from Monteverdi through Bach and Gluck and as far north as Mozart, and really, no further: for him perhaps, Mozart is cutting-edge contemporary. Much of the performance of the Jupiter symphony was simply alive and filled with energy; though we are very familiar with ‘historically informed’ performances, it was still stimulating to hear live, such a performance of a masterpiece that sits very much in the modern symphonic tradition. So it sometimes called for open ears and mind. The minuet was very fast. But in the Finale, I was troubled by what I felt as excessive ritardandi, followed by a sudden resumption of the earlier tempo. Do it once, but four time in exactly the same way and it becomes a cliché.

Much as this performance was revelatory, suggesting the sort of sound that Mozart might have known, I have in my mind performances by modern orchestras that manage to prolong and intensify the drama of this great finale, affording its marvellous contrapuntal and fugal structure a grandeur and power that may be a little inauthentic but which works more on the emotions than does the lighter fabric of a classical (rather than baroque, one might add) orchestra.

Cello and piano recital at St Andrew’s series

Paul Mitchell (cello) and Richard Mapp (piano)

Schumann: Fantasiestücke, Op.73
Ernest Bloch: From Jewish Life
Samuel Barber: Sonata for cello and piano, Op.6

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Thursday, 18 March, 12.15pm

I must admit to being rather tired of the Schumann work; it is played so often, particularly on violin or clarinet.  Because of this, it no longer feels like a fantasy.  However, the playing of these performers redeemed the work somewhat.  A lovely warm, yet ringing tone from the cellist, plus perfect balance and ensemble characterised their performance.

Because I was unable to be at the recital either for its opening or its closing, I interpolate here a paragraph from Peter Mechen:
In the Schumann I didn’t quite get the “perfect balance” impression from where I was sitting (closer to the piano, perhaps – and the Bloch and Barber pieces were far better – see below) – I recently heard a performance of the Schumann in its viola-and-piano transcription, which had the effect of “lifting” the music out of its somewhat sombre-coloured world – the piece is problematical for the ‘cello and piano combination, because there’s a tendency (as here) for the ‘cellist’s tones to be covered in the figurations, especially if the player (also, as here) in the interests of poetry plays with some reticence. The players captured nicely the “wind-blown” tones of the second piece, with plenty of detailed phrasing and dynamic shading – occasionally I thought the cellist’s intonation a shade uncomfortable at the upper-end of his register, something which was evident at moments throughout the finale as well. So, modified rapture from me for the first item – I was struck by the difference in Paul Mitchell’s whole approach to the Bloch work – suddenly the ‘cello was “singing out” like I didn’t find in the Schumann at the beginning of the programme.

Ernest Bloch’s work had both emotional content and eloquence, as the excellent programme notes said.  The music produced gorgeous sonorities from the players.  The Hebrew cadences and inflections gave a character that was most affecting; quite different from the drawing-room aesthetic of the Schumann pieces.

At times the music was reminiscent of Middle Eastern music; although Jewish, Bloch lived entirely in Europe and the United States.  In the final of the work’s three movements, ‘Jewish Song’, the cellist obtained an almost moaning sound from his instrument.

Equally interesting was the Barber sonata, written in 1932.  Barber eschewed the tonal system of Schoenberg and his disciples.  However, though written in a traditional tonal language, the sonata is in no way an imitation of earlier composers, any more than Richard Strauss’s music is.  For a work written by a 22-year-old, this was a mature and assured piece of writing indeed.

The sonata was full of delights, inventiveness and contrasts.

Here Peter Mechen continues:
I really enjoyed the Samuel Barber work – I loved the way the music grew from out of the depths at the beginning, and blossomed into great surgings of tone from both instruments – very involving and expressive! The first movement traverses a lot of ground, it seems, full-blooded episodes following moments of touching introspection, bringing forth playing from both musicians that was focused and assured, the movement gradually yielding its ghost up to a murmuring silence. The players brought off the adagio/presto-adagio middle movement with great elan, full-breathed lines at the beginning, quixotic and energetic in the middle section, then some wonderful “digging into” the opening mood’s return at the end. Richard Mapp brought off the appassionato piano-only opening of the last movement with great energy, the cellist replying in kind; an exchange whose involvement carried us through a somewhat fragmented, volatile structure, and engaged our interest strongly, tapping into the work’s youthful whole-heartedness, and making it work. Generously, Paul Mitchell and Richard Mapp gave us a transcription of a Barber song as an encore, “Sure on this Shining Night”, its meditative loveliness bringing the concert to a satisfying close.

Rosemary Collier’s final words:
Mapp was an exemplary partner to the cellist: always ‘on the ball’ and subtly balancing the dynamics and interpretation of Paul Mitchell.

It was great to hear a solo cello.  How seldom we hear this sort of music live!   In a past era, the old Broadcasting Corporation’s Concert Section used to promote recitals by visiting soloists who were here to perform with the symphony orchestra.  One might hope for more such sonatas to be included in programmes presented by quartets, trios etc. touring for Chamber Music New Zealand, or performing for the Wellington Chamber Music Society.