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 Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn: Pia Komsi (soprano), Isabelle Druet (mezzo), Hans Jörg Mammel (tenor), Matthew Rose (bass), Paul Lewis (piano), BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / François-Xavier Roth (conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 18.9.2009 (GPu)

, Leonore Overture No.3
Mozart, Piano Concerto No.12
Haydn, Mass in D minor (Nelson Mass)

The pre-concert publicity for this concert circulated under the banner of ‘Heroic Vienna’. The title has a certain aptness – Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No.3 is a powerful statement of many of the heroic issues at the heart of Fidelio and Haydn’s Nelson Mass, particularly in its use of timpani and drums, is full of military imagery, reflecting (and reflecting on) the disturbed condition of Europe in the summer of 1798. Still, ‘heroic’ hardly seems the most obvious of adjectives to apply to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.12. If an adjective was needed to describe all of the evening’s music, perhaps ‘Joyous Vienna’ would have served as well or better, provided that we understand ‘joy’ with the full weight that Enlightenment and Romantic thinkers gave to it. For them it was an emotion bound up with the individual’s sense of his or her place in a larger coherence, and with a kind of ethical triumph. The philosopher John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) writes of Joy as “a delight of the Mind, from the consideration of the present or assured approaching possession of a Good” (4). For Schiller, in his ‘Ode to Joy’ (1785, revised 1803), Joy is the “bright spark of divinity”, a “daughter of Elysium”, the “magic power” which can make “all men brothers”. “All creatures”, Schiller tells us, “drink of joy at Nature’s breast”. For Coleridge (in his 1802 ‘Dejection: An Ode’) it is a “strong music in the soul”, given only “to the pure, and in their purest hour”, a power which “wedding Nature to us gives in dower / A new Earth and new Heaven”, from which “flows all that charms or ear or sight, / All melodies the echoes of that voice”. Such attitudes permeate much of the finest music of Classical and Romantic Vienna and are certainly readily apparent in the three works very intelligently programmed together here, works which date from much the same years (the Mozart from 1782/3, Haydn 1798 and Beethoven 1806) as the poems by Sciller and Coleridge quoted above.

Leonore No.3, in its opening adagio seems to descend into the lightless cell in which Florestan is incarcerated; by its closing presto it provides a more or less uncloudedly radiant affirmation of the joy of liberation and love triumphant. The unison opening was done with attractive crispness and clarity, and there was a real quality of hushed anticipation in what followed in this performance. The dialogue of flute and violins was particularly lovely and Roth’s delineation of contrasts in dynamics and tempo throughout the overture was admirable, sharply defined but without exaggeration. There was a proper sense of drama at all points, as hope was prompted in the offstage trumpet fanfares indicating the impending arrival of the Minister of Justice and then all tension was released in the celebratory music of the conclusion, the rising figure in the violins well shaped and declaimed; the transformation of musical materials at the close emblematic of an ethical transformation. This was a thoughtful and yet rousing start to a ‘joyous’ – and, yes, ‘heroic’ – Viennese evening.

The joys of Mozart’s ‘little’ A Major piano concerto are of a less heroic nature. K414 was one of the tree (K413-15) concertos which were written in the winter of 1782-3, to be performed by the composer as he sought to establish himself in Vienna after leaving the service of Archbishop Colloredo in 1781. Like its fellows, K414 benefits from Mozart’s melodic fertility, being rich in splendid themes; it is also full of subtle touches of interplay and exchange between orchestra and soloist. The adjective “genial” is one that seems to be applied with particular frequency to this concerto and one could readily hear why in this lovingly graceful performance by Paul Lewis and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. If one is tempted, like so many others, to use the epithet ‘genial’ here, it is worth remembering that the word carries a fuller charge of meaning than its purely modern usage – where it seems to mean something like “friendly and pleasant in manner” – might suggest. Another sense of the word, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, is as a description of something or someone “pertaining to genius [or] characterized by genius”. K414 is genial in both senses, its joy evident in the manifestation of (and on our part the experience of) natural genius. Lewis is, of course, a very fine pianist. His playing here had, especially in the andante, a remarkable luminosity of tone, and was everywhere both richly fluent and precise, its balancing (one might better say uniting) of harmonic, melodic and rhythmic demands. Though attentive to detail, Lewis never gives the impression of being excessively fussy or obsessed with the immediate phrase; indeed, it is a virtue of his playing that such attentiveness is consistently subordinated to a sense of the larger shapes of the work. For the most the partnership with François-Xavier Roth worked very well (my one reservation was about some of the orchestral work in the andante, especially in the opening tutti, which occasionally had a certain awkwardness to it). The final movement opened with a delightfully dancing rondeau, and in the allegretto which succeeds it one had the sense that one was listening to a kind of idealised form of human conversation, social dialogue as it might be! In the sublimity and the wit of the music of this movement, very well realised by soloist, orchestra and conductor, we were back in the realms of joy.

Haydn’s so-called Nelson Mass – the composer’s original title was Missa in angustiis (Mass in Time of Tribulation) – is surely one of his very finest works (which is to say that it is a work of real importance by any standards). It is quasi-symphonic in scale and shape, in its reconciliation of contrary impulses and moods. The ominous D minor opening is a necessary musical complement, the necessary defining opposite, to the exuberant fugal conclusion of the Agnus Dei, in which the words ‘Donna nobis pacem’ seem to carry a firm confidence that the prayer will be answered, so that the work can close (to quote John Locke again) by evoking in the listener “a delight of the Mind, from the consideration of the present or assured approaching possession of a Good”. Again, that is, we end in Joy. François-Xavier Roth directed an excellent performance of the work. The work of both orchestra and chorus was exemplary and Roth’s control of the balance of his forces was well-nigh perfect. Soprano soloist Piia Komsi is still better known for her performances of contemporary music, but she seemed at home in Haydn’s idiom too and her voice, even if not of the very largest, was particularly radiant in the ‘Et incarnatus est’ of the Credo and the ‘Osanna in excelsis’ of the Sanctus. Isabelle Druet (who I last heard singing Monteverdi) made some pleasing contributions; the tenor of Hans Jörg Mammel sometimes struggled to make itself heard, though when audible he seemed very much at home in the music. Matthew Rose’s performance of the solo part in the ‘Qui tollis’ of the Gloria had both authority and tenderness. The Nelson Mass received a full-blooded performance, responsive to the very real power of the original and its considerable emotional range. It made a compelling and uplifting conclusion to a Viennese evening that was full of joy.

Glyn Pursglove

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