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S & H Concert Review

MOSTLY MOZART: Mozart: Overture to ‘Die Entführung,’ Sinfonia Concertante, Symphony no. 39: Beethoven, Piano Concerto no. 2. Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, cond. Emmanuel Krivine, with Freddy Kempf, Priya Mitchell, David Garrett (ME).


The ‘Mostly Mozart’ series at the Barbican borrows its name from the famous festival at New York’s Lincoln Center, but you should beware of certain essential differences, admittedly peripheral to the music itself but nonetheless influential in terms of one’s enjoyment of an evening. The most obvious contrast is the setting; where New York has the lively, buzzy, open – air feel of the Arts concourse of the superb Lincoln Center, London’s version has…well, the Barbican. The hall may be much improved in musical terms, but the whole is as dreary as ever it was, and our dinner experience provided ample evidence of that, as well as being an exchange worthy of Basil Fawlty himself.

The Barbican’s one potentially attractive feature is the little terrace with its watery levels and pleasant church view; the Balcony Bistro overlooks this and, as well as calling itself ‘Balcony,’ informs that it has ‘Limited Outdoor Seating, Weather Permitting.’ We arrived at 6.00 on one of the few sunny days of the year, saw the inviting looking terrace with its tables set out, and of course asked to be seated out there, only to receive the reply ‘No, outside is closed.’ Of course, we protested – all the windows were open onto the terrace, it was sweltering inside – how could ‘outside’ be ‘closed?’ No matter, they would not seat or serve us there. We tried again when our drinks were brought, and the answer this time was absolutely priceless: ‘You can’t sit outside because if you did, then everyone would want to sit there and there would not be enough tables outside for everyone.’ I might add that there were as many tables outside, as there were in. We tried saying ‘So? First come, first served, like it is anywhere else in the world…’ and so on, but to no avail. Later arrivals tried, too, but meekly retreated when told no, it is sunny there, but you can’t sit outside – we, however, just took our food outside once it had been served, and enjoyed our meal all the more. ‘Bloody Americans,’ you could almost hear the gentle Brits hissing as they sweated into their rather good Chardonnay.

Anyway, back to the music. Once inside the concert hall, things look up distinctly. The place is full of an eclectic mixture of folks, all looking forward to this pleasantly ‘Lite’ style of concert in which three young and personable soloists are teamed with a veteran orchestra and established conductor. Emmanuel Krivine has been a stalwart of the musical scene for many years, without ever being regarded as a star; in his role as Music Director of the Orchestre National de Lyon he has made several noteworthy recordings, but his profile is less than glamorous, which is a pity since he really is something special. I’ve speculated before on these pages as to exactly what conductors are for, but with the likes of Krivine, there’s no need to ask because you can see it in every beat - he’s there to enthuse the orchestra to such a level that they play well – worn pieces as though they’ve just encountered them, and to convey that spirit of love and understanding to the audience. This was especially evident in the overture, which was played with so much sheer fizz I thought some of the musicians might take off – those whizzing semiquavers have seldom sounded so lively.

The Sinfonia Concertante was less impressive, not owing to any lack of skill on the part of orchestra or conductor but simply because Mitchell and Garrett, for all their impressive youth and showmanship, turned in rather superficial readings; if Mozart himself played the viola part here, and his father the violin, one must surely imagine them to have given the music more emotional drive than this, especially in the wonderful slow movement. It was a different matter with Beethoven’s B flat major piano concerto, which Freddy Kempf performed with absolute grace. Obviously the most Mozartian of the later composer’s works, this concerto’s appearance of lightness and vigour conceal much evidence of the later Beethoven, principally in the exquisite Adagio, and Kempf’s lyrical, pensive, collaborative playing of it left very little to be desired. Here is a pianist who is neither showy nor reticent, and who appreciates that a concerto is a dialogue with the orchestra; his engagement with the piece put me in mind of Ashkenazy’s playing of it.

Mozart’s Symphony no. 39 ended the programme in a wholly satisfying performance. The influence of Krivine’s mentor Karl Böhm was clearly heard in his direction of it, since like Böhm he encouraged the orchestra to shape the music with loving skill, allowing the melodies the chance to really sing out. He judged the drama of the first movement superbly, and the chattering woodwind exchanges in the finale were as witty as they should be but so often are not. The Andante was sweetly lyrical but still kept the dramatic urgency of the Allegro, and the almost martial Minuet was full of stirring moments. The orchestra played superbly for him and the audience was enthusiastic, so it was no surprise to see the conductor humming a jaunty little air as he bounded off the platform with a spring in his step, echoing the mood of all of us as we emerged from the light and elegance of this concert into the crepuscular crassness that is the Barbican centre.

Melanie Eskenazi


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