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Mozart and Beethoven: Northern Sinfonia, Adam Walker (flute), Janusz Piotrowicz (conductor), Ripon Cathedral, North Yorkshire, UK, 19.9.2009 (JL)

Mozart Symphony no 35 in D Haffner
Mozart Flute Concerto no 2 in D
Beethoven Symphony no 3 in E flatEroica

This was the final concert of Ripon’s International Festival. The grand, rhetorical opening of Mozart’s Haffner Symphony suitably filled the vaulted spaces of Ripon’s medieval cathedral and the first thing I noticed was the power of the string sound in relation to the size of the orchestra. Northern Sinfonia is a band of classical proportions with a string complement under half the size of a standard symphony orchestra. This may be a factor in the relative clarity of sound compared with that of the Festival’s opening concert, Bach's Mass on B minor performed with the full size Orchestra of Opera North and the Rudolphus Choir, a performance that often suffered from the reverberant acoustic. It maybe that in this spacious building the larger the forces the fuzzier the sound, and although Mozart’s orchestral works were designed for a smallish theatre space or even salon, the Haffner, on this occasion, sounded splendid in an especially energetic performance.

The Northern Sinfonia strings can be particularly nimble and they contributed to a very exciting last movement that Piotrowicz took at a cracking pace. This virtuoso rendering helped to confirm Mozart's compositional virtuosity in his later finales (an area where most composers had traditionally put in less effort than in their first movements) culminating in the astonishing, contrapuntally hair-raising last movement of his last symphony, the Jupiter.

In the Flute Concerto, the Festival had engaged a young soloist who is clearly on the threshold of a distinguished career. Adam Walker was snapped up earlier this year by the London Philharmonic as their new principal flautist at the age of 21. There must be some sort of record there. He wisely stood well in front of the orchestra which helped him to project his particularly fluid, lyrical sound. He was supported with style and sensitivity by the Northern Sinfonia which is tailored made for this sort of repertory.

After the interval, Piotrowicz launched into an uncompromising Eroica. Those of a generation who were brought up on the early Beethoven LP recordings of the likes of Klemperer and Barbirolli (and without wishing to be tactless, that probably accounted for most of the Ripon audience) might have had to make readjustments to the fast tempi and energy of this performance. In the past, it was generally accepted that Beethoven’s speed markings were inaccurate, some of them seeming impossibly fast. Most contemporary, scholarly opinion is that they were probably nearer the mark and modern performance usually reflects this. Listen to recordings of the two conductors mentioned above and you might be surprised to know that Beethoven’s Eroica first movement allegro is marked con brio. Piotrowicz was clearly intent on restoring the brio. This is not just a matter of speed - although he did go fast - but of accent and a sense of forward motion. There are moments where, conventionally, conductors will effect a passing slowing down, however slight. The Northern Sinfonia players will have played this work dozens, or even hundreds, of times and could do it in their sleep, and I sensed them falling prey to habit when they occasionally began to relax for an expected passing rallentando / ritenuto / ritardando or whatever. Piotrowicz was having none of this and successfully drove them onwards. He clearly takes the view, one that is difficult to challenge, that if Beethoven wanted the music to slow, he would mark the score appropriately, which he does when he wants it so.

The subject of Beethoven’s metronome speed markings, where he gives figures of beats per minute, is notoriously controversial. In the case of the Eroica, the marks were supplied to a publisher many years after the symphony’s composition. In spite of current wisdom there are still those who think many of them too fast and Beethoven’s mark for the last movement is ammunition for that view, for it is particularly challenging. In fact I doubt if I have ever heard a performance that meets it. The recordings of Klemperer and Barbirolli must go at between an astonishing 25 – 30 % slower than Beethoven’s request. Piotrowicz sounded to me as if he was getting close to the composer’s apparent wishes, and this, combined with a sense of steady cumulative build-up and the rare interpolations of magical repose, resulted in a particularly powerful listening experience. Towards the end, the main tune is blasted out in stretched (augmented) form led by french horn, and whenever I hear this I yearn for a final “blow your socks off” climactic few bars. Somehow it never quite happens like that. But this time, for me, it did as the horns truly rode the orchestra, generating a searing excitement. Well done the horns.

The moments of repose featured solo oboe playing of distinction. The oboe is prominent throughout the symphony and the Sinfonia has the good fortune to have as their principal Roy Carter who is something of a legend in British double reed circles, having been, for many years, principal of one of London’s (and therefore the world’s) leading orchestras, the LSO. In his time he has guest lead most of Britain’s opera, orchestral and chamber groups. Unfortunately, all through this performance he was having what seemed to be serious trouble with one of his keys, requiring intensive remedial action between movements that involved some noisy blowing (to free moisture?) and the use of a handkerchief. Yet he got through it heroically and that could be said of all the players. At the end, most of them sported the kind of grins that suggested satisfaction at having successfully survived a dangerous rollercoaster ride. Much of Beethoven is – or at least should be - a dangerous place. Janusz Piotrowicz must be congratulated on having the courage to drag the players to that place.

John Leeman

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