Genius at one (or two) removes

MOZART & J. C. BACH

The Melbourne Musicians

St. John’s Southgate

November 15, 2015

Finishing their annual subscription series, director Frank Pam and his chamber orchestra paid tribute to one of the more congenial musical friendships between two great composers.  Mozart and Johann Christian Bach met in London in 1764 and became fast friends, the younger composer claiming that the English-based youngest son of Johann Sebastian had a formidable influence on his instrumental writing. Both blazing successes at moments in their careers, the two men died in penurious circumstances.

As a sign of his esteem, Mozart arranged three of the elder writer’s keyboard sonatas as concertos and performed then on his trans-European tours, providing the originals with his own orchestral framework. Taking this one step further, the notable Israeli clarinetist Yona Ettlinger re-arranged the Mozart score, changing the solo part to fit his own instrument and adding a third movement to the original two, neatly transplanting the second Allegro from Bach’s own Sonata Op. 17 in E flat.  This was the piece that the Musicians performed yesterday with soloist Lawrence Dobell, principal clarinet with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

As you’d expect, the reading was distinguished by a fluent, polished line from Dobell, at home with the mutated galant style that came across despite the permutations intervening between the original and this reworking published in 1974.  Easy in its melodic flow,  the concerto makes no extraordinary demands, not even in the cadenzas which Dobell dispatched  effortlessly; but then, they are brief, I suspect because there is little thematic matter to be exploited.

Appearing a little later in Mozart’s life, the Symphony No. 27 is the last of six written in 1773 and precedes the superb work in C Major of the following year, the opening phrases of which are forever associated for many of us with the Music Lovers’ Hour hosted on ABC Radio by Dr. A.E. Floyd, one-time organist/choirmaster of St. Paul’s Cathedral and a Melbourne musical institution as well as a Mozart enthusiast at a time when the composer’s works were rarities on concert programs.  Not that the G Major K. 199 suffers in comparison but the jump in assurance between the two symphonies is noticeable.

Pam’s orchestra made a hearty start to it, the violins bracing in their triple-stop chords and observing the dynamic niceties set up by their conductor.  The body was blessed by pairs of forthright flutes and horns, the latter making their presences felt in tutti passages and coping manfully with parts that rarely challenge a modern instrument.   The second movement’s progress could hardly be faulted in terms of articulation although the strings, especially when muted, sounded plump, not quite altogether on the beat.  In fact, the rhythmic factor presented the only real difficulty in all three movements; at the cross-over points before repeats, everyone seemed hesitant and the players needed to keep closer focus on Pam during the Presto-finale: a model of transparency demanding a confident and exact attack.

Jackie Wong (melbournemusicians.com)
Jackie Wong (image: melbournemusicians.com)

Appearing in another work from the teenage Mozart, young violinist Jackie Wong performed the solo part in the G Major Concerto, a light-hearted masterpiece for the most part calculated to flatter an executant’s suppleness of delivery and asking for a clear, light-coloured product.  At 14, Wong obviously sees the score as an exercise in bravura, tending to make heavy weather of her outer movements, which is understandable in passages of semiquaver figuration.  When the solo violin has the floor, however, there is little point in a weighty dynamic, particularly as Mozart kept his accompaniments discreet.  In the melting Adagio, Wong made a better impression, letting her line speak without over-insistence; a welcome contrast to the first Allegro’s exposed cadenza where she urged so hard that the danger became one of tuning.  The Musicians coped well enough with their responsibilities, apart from a cracked horn note or two, and the trio of second violins showed an admirable consistency throughout.

To complement the woodwind concerto, Pam finished the afternoon with one of Christian Bach’s Op. 3 sinfonias, the last of the set of six and, like most of this program’s content, in the gratifying and congenial key of G Major.   Three movements in the space of ten minutes left little time for absorption except that the bookend Allegros sounded confident while the middle G minor-centred Andante found out occasional intonation problems in the top strings.  Still it made a brisk, optimistic conclusion to the year’s work from this always-ambitious body of performers.