MOZART & BRITTEN
Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre
Monday May 23, 2022
Here in Brisbane for the last in a 12-performance national run, the ACO played a program of music by two of music’s greatest brats with admirable panache, taking an individual approach to two Mozart scores – the K.136 Divertimento in D and the brilliant Sinfonia Concertante of 1779 – and exerting an apparently effortless expertise on Britten’s newly-resuscitated (well, in the last decade) Elegy for Strings and his still-striking Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.
Three of these works require strings only. Mozart’s Sinfonia here appeared in an arrangement that left out the original’s pairs of horns and oboes, in line with a ‘tradition’ that obtained in the 19th century of rescoring this writer’s works at will. Sorry, but I missed the winds’ timbres significantly, even if anyone with half a brain can see the financial logic in using readily available resources, not carrying around nation-wide a quartet of wind players who contribute only half-an-hour’s input to each performance. The texture changes and, if you love the double concerto as Mozart wrote it, your expectations are bound to be dashed at too many points when the ambience is all-strings.
So, nothing left to do but sublimate your disappointment and enjoy what you’re offered by the country’s premier chamber orchestra. Britten’s Elegy, written in the composer’s 14th year, shows a talent of striking assurance, especially when it leaves off its portentous opening for more active fields. Like a fair amount of what was to come in later years, the piece impresses for its executive skill and emotional liveliness, while very little bricks and mortar remain in the memory. You can, if you like, ferret out reflections of Mendelssohn – another high achiever when young – even in the recourse to fugato.
For all that, the ACO’s 17 members produced a powerful and committed reading, the sonorous carapace admirably firm apart from a couple of production flaws from the second violins, apparently missing their principal, Helena Rathbone. Artistic director/concertmaster/leader Richard Tognetti contributed his impeccable individuality in an exposed passage (or two?) but this brief work’s appearance impressed as a curiosity, fleshing out an unknown corner of Britten’s juvenilia for aficionados. Thanks for the experience but I won’t be buying the CD.
Speaking of recordings, the ACO recorded part of Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante in 1986 (the pre-Tognetti Age), with Carl Pini and Irina Morozowa the soloists. Some 24 years further on, Tognetti and the ACO’s then principal viola, Christopher Moore, recorded the whole work; a memorable pairing which I witnessed in Hamer Hall about that time. It seems to be a selective rite of passage for the position because here was the newly-appointed ACO principal violist, Stefanie Farrands, collaborating with Tognetti and reflecting the violinist’s chameleonic path through this score with excellent reliability.
In fact, this performance was a delight for the experience of the two solo lines which sounded faultless to my ears across the work’s length, notably in the two cadenzas where the linear mirror-work showed that the possibility for musical dialogue isn’t just a Goethean aphorism. Apart from the excellence of ensemble work, the interpretation distinguished itself for its elegance; some distance from versions in which the output strives to be unbuttoned to the point of sprawling – a temptation in the opening maestoso‘s 71-bar scene-setting tutti.
Not that we weren’t faced with some unexpected moments, like the slow approaches to fermata in bars 176 and 189. But the delectable chase between the two soloists that precedes the movement’s recapitulation was exactly that, as opposed to a machismo-laden competition. The wind absence didn’t strike me as a defect in the central Andante until the coda where the oboes were sorely missed at bar 124 and beyond. Still, the concluding Presto was handled sensibly with a remarkable neatness of phrasing and an infectious, sparkling delivery.
Another improbable youthful score, Mozart’s D Major Divertimento comes from the composer’s 16th year but in recent decades its popularity/regularity of performance is approaching that of the Eine kleine Nachtmusik serenade. Tognetti and his forces gave it a smart-as-paint run-through, doing their best to offer as much variation as possible with unexpected phrasing, striking textural differentiations and the usual ducks-and-drakes games with dynamics. While the first two movements demonstrated (if it was really needed) the ACO’s cleverly etched style, the finale was brilliant in sound and execution with the ensemble introducing all sorts of production tricks – saltando, pizzicato, spiccato, staccato – to brighten up Mozart’s plain Presto.
As for a major Britten work to balance the Mozart sinfonia, the Frank Bridge Variations filled the bill quite adequately. Written when the British composer was 24 (a tad older than Mozart when he produced his double concerto), the score brought international notice and fame at home. Britten’s many admirers regard this as a pivotal step in the path that led to the last string quartet and cello suite; while the less idolatrous among us find whole segments of admirable craft and emotional weight (Variations II and IX, and the powerful welter of the final bars), it’s hard to ignore other passages of superficial glitter and skittishness in the work’s central movements.
Another pre-Tognettitime recording comes from 1982/3 when the ACO recorded this work with Dene Olding leading the way. I doubt whether this early product from the ensemble’s first decade of operations would match Monday night’s performance in terms of precision and character. Each change in fabric substantiated the players’ reputation for informed virtuosity – from some searching non-vibrato chords near the start, through the ten violins playing in flawless unison during the Wiener Walzer, later into a breathtaking Moto perpetuo, and eventually exploring the realm of three ideally matched violas during the penultimate Chant.
This was a well-focused evening’s work where two adolescent compositions were paired with two semi-mature creations – all carried out with polish and insight. I left QPAC full of questions about the quality of genius, particularly as it obtains in the young, and heartened by the enthusiasm for music-making that came from the night’s music itself and from its interpreters. Of course, the questions remain unanswered but the gifts of Tognetti and the ACO remain as valuable and uplifting as ever.