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J.C. Bach, Mozart, J.S. Bach: Murray Perahia (piano, conductor), Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (Kenneth Sillito (director, leader), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 14.11.2009 (GPu)

J.C. Bach, Sinfonia Concertante in E flat major (Notturno), T.288/7

Mozart, Piano Concerto No.17 in G major, K543

J.S. Bach, Keyboard Concerto No.3 in D, BWV 1054

Mozart, Symphony No. 38 in D (Prague), K504

Concertgoers in Cardiff have been treated to some very good concerts in recent months. This was another. It benefited from the sheer quality of the performers, both soloist and orchestra, and also from a thoroughly well-conceived programme, in which the works performed invited thoughts about a variety of interconnections. One interesting way of looking at them/listening to them, for example, is in terms of the ways in which their sound-worlds reflect the different kinds of venues for which they were written. J.C. Bach’s Sinfonia was surely conceived with performance outdoors in mind, the way that the horns are used reflecting this; the Mozart Piano Concerto was written for ‘domestic’ performance (albeit on a large scale), premiered as it was by his pupil Barbara (‘Babette’) Ployer and premiered (by her) at her father’s house in the Viennese suburb of Döbling in 1784, while the Prague Symphony was written for performance in the Opera House there, played by Mozart, in January of 1787. Or one might like to think of the different ways in which the works by the two Bachs exist virtually on the borderline between chamber music and orchestral music (and one might mike a case for placing them on the chamber side of the border), while of the two works by Mozart the Symphony occupies a place much further over that border than the piano concerto does. Or, of course, the sequence provoked thoughts of a musical-historical kind. A line of descent from J.S. Bach through J.C. Bach (who, then aged 29, befriended the 8 year old Mozart in London in 1764) was made attractively audible.

The Sinfonia by J.C. Bach which opened the programme was played conductorless and was – apart from its own very real merits and interest – an effective demonstration of just how perfectly ‘together’ the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields is, how well its members watch and listen to one another, how clear its orchestral textures are and how precise its rhythms are. The way in which Bach deploys his team of solo instruments – two horns, two oboes, two violins, two violas and one cello – made for remarkable variety and many subtle effects. In some passages as few as three instruments are deployed, in some more or less the whole of the solo force was in dialogue with the other members of the orchestra; the permutations were constantly varied, and enabled one to appreciate how uniformly excellent was the intonation of the Academy’s soloists, as well as making for delightful listening as it demonstrated the composer’s familiarity with Italian and French manners, as well as the thorough grounding in the Germanic tradition that he had received from his father.

Murray Perahia joined the academy for K453, directing them from the keyboard. The opening allegro of this concerto abounds in thematic ideas and both orchestra and soloist relished that abundance without lingering self-indulgently over any one of the many ideas. Murray Perahia’s striking clarity of line was immediately obvious, his playing here (and elsewhere) marked by a grasp of larger structure and pattern that he was able to communicate in ways that not too many modern players of Mozart can. In a feature which appeared in the BBC Music Magazine in July of 2009, Perahia was quoted as saying “When you’re young, you can be taken with the impulse of the moment and the beauty of a phrase, but the older you get, the more you see that the phrase is only beautiful because of the context within which it works. The melody is only the outward manifestation of something quite deep inside and it’s to come to terms with this that one studies”. Perahia’s reading of this concerto certainly contained some beautifully shaped phrases, but one was never allowed to imagine that such phrases were an end in themselves; this was a reading that eloquently communicated many of those ‘deeper’ structures on which the beauty of the phrases was persuasively shown to depend. Throughout there was a quasi-chamber-music sense of conversation between soloist and orchestra, nowhere more so than in the andante, in which the piano seems, very gently, to dictate changes of harmonic direction; on this occasion one was aware that the soloist ‘persuaded’ rather than commanded such shifts. Perahia’s stage manner is unassuming, all excessive demonstrativeness or showiness eschewed, and even in a concerto such as this (and even more so in the Bach concerto which followed) he is very much part of the ensemble. By almost eliding the gap between andante and succeeding allegretto, allowing only the briefest of pauses, Perahia effected a magical transition, from the sentiment of the slow movement to the dancing variations of the last movement, making what can seem like an odd or forced contrast utterly convincing, a natural expression of a natural volatility of mood. Performances of Mozart piano concertos don’t come much better than this.

Post-interval Perahia again directed from the piano in J.S. Bach’s BWV 1054, an arrangement of the Violin Concerto BWV 1042. There was very much a sense here of the keyboard as part of the larger structure and texture of the work, Perahia attempting none of the artificial foregrounding or highlighting of the piano that one sometimes meets in performances of Bach’s keyboard concertos. Here the keyboard sank into and emerged from the larger orchestral sound in an easy and natural fashion. As one would expect from his recordings of Bach’s solo keyboard works, Perahia’s command of Bach’s counterpoint was absolute and, in the best, sense wholly unacademic. The first movement was infectiously vigorous, the second – marked ‘adagio and piano sempre’ – had a kind of secular reverence and was full of compassion and tenderness. Perahia is capable of a profoundly evocative poetry (produced without the slightest flamboyance or exaggeration) and his reading of this central movement combined poetry and clarity of structure to very moving effect. The insistent rhythms of short closing allegro spoke of a kind of holy clockwork, vivacious, full of life and yet almost (only almost) mechanical in their precision. The whole performance was exhilarating.

I didn’t feel that the same could quite be said of the performance of the Prague Symphony that followed. Of course, given the sheer quality of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, playing under the baton of Perahia, this was very far from being a bad or a weak performance. But it lacked the electricity of what had gone before, and though the opening of the first movement was properly full of ominous menace, there were moments later in the movement when one felt the need for a little more attack, a little more emotional intensity; perhaps even a little more grandiloquence – I am not sure that we left chamber music far enough behind here. In the central andante there was much that was limpidly beautiful and serene, but sometimes tempi were so slow as to allow a dissipation of musical tension. The horns were, though, particularly fine here – every section of the orchestra (the woodwinds were uniformly excellent) made a very favourable impression during the evening. In the closing presto finale, again, the performance, for all its clarity and assurance, didn’t quite scale the joyous heights of the most outstanding performances of the work. Perhaps my reservations are overdone – the first three quarters of the programme was of such a uniformly high quality that it was perhaps expecting too much to expect the level to be sustained to the very end of the evening.

In fact, however, the Prague wasn’t the very end of the evening. As an encore Perahia conducted the Academy in a splendidly fleet-footed performance of the closing presto from Haydn’s Oxford symphony. This was a glass of sparkling wine to round off the evening, a splendid display of the orchestra’s unanimity of sound and of Perahia’s ability, so often, to get their best out of them.

Glyn Pursglove


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